Social media and the internet offer countless opportunities for children and young people to communicate and build relationships online. Whether that’s staying in regular contact with old friends, or making new ones, being able to join online communities helps give a sense of belonging. It provides somewhere to express views, ideas and learn new skills, too.
This guide explains in more detail the various issues, myths and risks associated with online relationships. You’ll also find tips on how to talk to your child about developing and experiencing healthy ones.
What do unhealthy online relationships look like?
Like relationships conducted in real life, online ones should be based on qualities such as friendship, kindness, respect, trust, support, loyalty, equality, empathy, compromise and consideration for other people’s feelings.
There are many different signs of an unhealthy online relationship and they can vary depending on the situation. Signs can include when someone is being unkind, uncaring, disrespectful, suspicious or indifferent. Anger, frequent mood swings, lying, intimidation and a need to control, along with unpredictable behaviour which causes distress, are also common warning signs. Blackmailing and coercion are also clear signs that the relationship is not healthy.
What are the risks of online relationships?
While there are many benefits of communicating online, there are some specific risks due to the online context of the relationship. For instance, it could be experiencing peer pressure or bullying via social media, often by people known to that person. Or taking more risks or behaving inappropriately because of the perceived anonymity online. It’s helpful to discuss the potential problems of online relationships and what they or their friends may have experienced.
Here are some ideas to help start that conversation.
- Using abbreviations, slang and emojis. Do they ever lead to miscommunications and misunderstandings?
- Placing trust in an online friend can be risky. Is everyone who they are claiming to be online?
- Pressure from an online friend or group can lead to greater risk-taking or vulnerability to being exploited, such as being drawn into terrorism and extremism, or pressured to send a sexual image of themselves. What can you do if you experience peer pressure online?
- Too much focus on online relationships can result in offline ‘real-world’ relationships being neglected.
- Sharing intimate or personally identifiable information may raise the risk of grooming, abuse or cybercrime. What details should you never reveal online?
- Making comparisons with how others present themselves online, which may well be false or exaggerated, can have a detrimental effect on well-being. Do social media profiles accurately reflect people’s real life?
How to discuss and debunk the myths of online relationships
Because most children and young people haven’t yet experienced much in the way of real-world relationships, they are particularly vulnerable to inappropriate online relationships. Talking with them about what’s true (and what isn’t) in terms of what they see and read online will help put their minds at rest and helps develop critical thinking skills.
Issues that often cause the most concern – and answers you can give to counteract these myths – include the following.
- You see that someone has read your message, but are concerned they haven’t replied. Don’t worry if they haven’t responded straight away – they might simply be busy, or waiting for a time to give your message more attention.
- Other people have better friendships than you if they’re always liking and commenting on each other’s posts. Not having many likes, comments or followers doesn’t mean you’re not appreciated or that you don’t have many friends – friendships exist outside of the internet too.
- When in a new relationship, you must update your online status to make your boyfriend/girlfriend happy. You don’t need to update your online status to please them.
- If you break up with someone, you can say whatever you want about them online. This is untrue – you still need to be respectful if you talk to them, or about them, online.
- It’s OK to screenshot and share with others a private conversation, video or photo if you’re good friends and they’ve given their consent. Even if you’ve asked for their permission, your friend might still feel uncomfortable about this and it might mean that the content is shared further again with people you may not trust.
- If someone is annoyed because you won’t do something they ask, you need to do it eventually to make them happy. You don’t – a good friend will respect your decisions and not pressure you into doing something that makes you uncomfortable or worried.
How can I talk to my child about their online relationships?
Even if you’re not sure how to approach this topic with your child, or it’s not something you consider to be a problem, it’s important to talk about it.
You might find the following suggestions helpful when starting a conversation.
- Respect: help your child understand that respect is an important part of a healthy relationship, but doesn’t end if the relationship ends. Whether it’s a friendship or romantic relationship, what does a positive, respectful online relationship look like? And if that relationship ends, do you have the right to say and do whatever you wish with regards to the other person?
- Online bullying: you should never retaliate; try and block/mute online where possible. Save evidence by taking a screenshot of the threatening and harmful messages/images/videos, and tell a trusted adult who can get support to help resolve the issue. But bear in mind that some platforms will tell the ‘bullying’ sender that their messages have been screenshot.
- Consent: consent applies to relationships with other people and with companies and organisations. It’s important to make sure you always have consent before doing something that has any implications for them. If you’re in a relationship where you are expected to do something for another person, does that make you uncomfortable? Learning the words and phrases to indicate whether you have accepted or refused consent can help you manage tricky situations online.
- Other relationships: how do you feel when you see other friends sharing details of their own relationships online? How could you tell (and support) a friend you think is in an unhealthy relationship?
How can I support my child to develop healthy relationships online?
The charity Mind has some good advice for maintaining healthy online relationships – and what you can say to help your child, such as:
- Consider the potential impact of your words online and recognise that misunderstandings occur.
- Be respectful of other people's views and opinions, even if you don’t share them.
- Think about other people's intentions – not everyone is looking for support or friendship, and some people are looking to take advantage of others.
- Take a break – if a relationship is making you feel worse rather than better, then you might want to step away.
- Online services can allow you to block or restrict contact from someone, or to unfriend them completely. The bilingual Report Harmful Content service offers advice and support.
- Learn about the support services available such as Meic, Childline and the NSPCC. And remember, abuse doesn’t just happen online. It’s important to be aware that most sexual abuse of children takes place in real life – within the family context.
For more information about healthy relationships online view our parent and carer's guide to talking to your child or teenager about their relationships online.
Further help and support
For further help, advice, support and to report content and concerns please visit Support services on Keeping safe online.
Further digital resilience guidance and support can be found through the following trusted organisation and partner sites.
- A family guide to talking about healthy relationships and the internet pdf 419 Kb This file may not be accessible. If you need a more accessible version of this document please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Please tell us the format you need. If you use assistive technology please tell us what this is