Trigger Warning: This article includes references to online grooming of minors and sexual exploitation. If your child has been exploited online, contact An Garda Síochána immediately.
Although the minimum age for using many dating apps is 18, your child or teen might use other social media platforms to chat with potential love interests.
This comes with risks to your child’s privacy and safety but there are ways that you can help to protect them.
Here are some do’s and don’ts of online dating that you can share with your child:
DO: Keep communication open with trusted adults
Creating a space where your child can speak freely about their digital life is key to establishing trust between you. It can also help them develop critical thinking skills when it comes to online dating.
Encourage them to share details of potential relationships with you and tell them that they have your support no matter what.
DO: Understand the risks
Talk to your child about online grooming, and discuss ways to identify situations where they might put themselves in danger, eg. sharing intimate photos or telling the person their location.
Remind your child that any adult who wants to talk about sex with a minor is doing something wrong and should be reported to An Garda Síochána.
Fraudsters also use online dating to target victims. Tell your child that they should never send money or provide financial information to anyone online. If your child has been scammed, contact your local Garda station as soon as possible.
Encourage them to say ‘no’ to any situation that makes them feel uncomfortable.
DO: Know the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships
When speaking to your child, discuss what you both think a relationship needs to be healthy and fulfilling.
Talk to your child about the dangers of unhealthy or toxic relationships, and ways to identify them. Questions to ask could include:
- Is the person respecting your boundaries? Do they listen when you say ‘no’?
- Is the person possessive? Do they expect you to reply to their messages right away?
- Is the person trying to control who you speak to or what you wear?
DO: Know the tools to stay safe
Equip your child/teen with the tools they need to flag or report inappropriate or abusive behaviour. Such misconduct could include:
- Threats, harassment and other offensive messages
- Inappropriate or dangerous behaviour, either in-person or online
- Fake profiles
- Spam or solicitation with links to commercial websites
Many dating apps and social media platforms provide reporting and blocking tools so make sure your child is aware of them.
DO: Know there is always someone to talk to
Remind your child that you are there to support them whenever they need help online. As well as that, Childline is always there if they are nervous about talking to a parent or carer.
DON’T: Feel pressured to send intimate images
Sexting or sending nudes is the act of sharing explicit images via a mobile, email or instant message, and can be common as older kids start dating.
Many young people might think sexting is safe. Alternatively, they might feel pressured by a romantic partner to share intimate photos of themselves or do something they aren’t comfortable with on a webcam. However, these actions come with several risks.
If a relationship breaks down, the images might be shared non-consensually in an act of revenge.
There are also legal repercussions: any minor who comes to the attention of An Garda Síochána and is found to possess or have distributed these images could be assigned to their local Juvenile Liaison Officer and/or enrolled in a supportive education programme.
Talk to your child about the dangers posed by sexting and calmly outline what is and what is not acceptable behaviour in any relationship – online and offline.
DON’T: Meet them without someone else with you
Let your child/teen know that they should never meet up with an online friend while alone.
If they do choose to meet up with a person they’ve been talking to online, it should be with a trusted adult and in a public place.
DON’T: Forget about face-to-face relationships
Check in with your child on a regular basis to see how they balance their online and offline time.
Encourage them to keep up with in-person activities that connect them to their peers, like sports, drama, art and other hobbies they enjoy.
If you feel your child has been affected by any of the issues raised in this article and needs to talk, Childline is ready to listen. The service can be reached at any time by chatting online at Childline.ie, calling 1800 66 66 66 or sending a text to 50101.