Tinder and teens: critical thinking and the sideways glance

He sidles into the kitchen. ‘He’s joined Tinder.’ A vacuum descends. I twist towards my nearly 16-year- old son. He’s looking, I think warily, but all sense of normality evaporated 2 seconds ago so I’m not sure.

My hypothalamic reaction today is to fight this. To tell my son not to engage. And I probably did – given his body language. But I respect my son, and I don’t intend to sever conversations today.

‘Why?’ Stupid question. It elicits the obvious, predictable reply. ‘Dunno’. My curiosity is piqued now. ‘How did he join?’- another dumb question, indicative of a parent well out of the loop. He just signed up. Significant eye rolling here. He’s on Facebook. Of course! you need a Facebook account to sign up. Tinder locates you using GPS, then takes information from your Facebook profile, populates birthdate, images– you select the ones you want to use – and pages you’ve liked. As of the middle of June you must be over 18. I wonder how many people sign up to Facebook with correct year of birth. Irrespective – it’s an easy process to bypass, as my son’s friends exemplify.

I change tact. ‘Are lots of your friends signing up?’ He’s not sure. Some are. Male friends. That’s part of the problem – girls seem complicated, unattainable. You get the picture?

You can see why Tinder is appealing. All you have to do is sign up and there is a veritable honey pot – to pour over. Does he know the people? Tinder is meant to be local.

‘The women I know are in their 30’s and 40’s. Some as old as me’. I’ve descended to scare tactics! Perhaps I’m underestimating the lure of the older woman. Clearly I am hoping to shock him, to make him think about what they are doing. But yes, I would prefer he flirted with his known chronological peers. He pats me solicitously as he scours for his third pre-dinner snack; ‘Don’t worry I’m not on Tinder…’

I unclench my jaw. Both cats are glaring at me. I feed them. It used to be this simple with my son.

As I slice vegetables, thoughts oscillate – I am peering over a precipice – watching him cross the road – with his mates. Tinder is one social dating site, for over 18’s. There are other sites marketed at teenagers. I’ve looked at online sites for guidance. Internetmatters.org springs to mind. But really, how these boys behave is indicative of their moral and ethical code. Now we have to trust that the topics discussed, the rules and examples we’ve set as parents, and the school’s programs are useful for them. Has this community equipped them so they may engage and participate with their burgeoning sexuality with self respect and respect for those they are swiping? My son’s frequent refrain – ‘we talk about this at school,’ is being tested. Is this school’s mentor program more than filling out sheets, and listening to someone drone definitions? Have these boys explored how to be respectful, how to listen to another’s feelings? Will they use these skills when they engage online?

It’s tempting to continue parenting albeit in the guise of helping. I list options – from letting him do as he wishes to insisting on total disclosure, or total abstinence. Inevitably I reflect on my teenage years. How little I told my mother. But that’s not my point. Chopping – I reflect I’m privy to how effective the triangle of educating our children – parent, child and school – is right now. And I have to step back, let my son navigate this terrain. I’m lucky, he’s told me.

The boys huddle around one phone. Swiping. Exploring. Talking. Checking who they recognize. A match – they send an email. Emphasis on the ‘they’. It’s a joint construction.

‘We’re not sure who is on the other end though’, my son says laughing. Will ‘they’ meet up? ‘Probably not’ he says. ‘We’re just looking.’ Don’t we all just look at times?

I decide to observe. What else can I do? Yep I’m confronted; I’m nervous for him. They are just larking around.

The swipe is the easy part. Now, you could argue that the decision to swipe is where disrespect for others commences, or where they become vulnerable. And to a certain extent I would agree – you’ve made a choice largely based on physical appearance.

Yet is the Tinder swipe or dating app selection process different to the sidelong glance at that person on the train, or across the classroom? You’ve made a decision then – perhaps less publicly. Either way, the next step is the significant one: what do you do with your choice? I wait. It’s a good wait. “We’ve banned someone because he was posting inappropriate messages to some of the girls in our chat group on Facebook.’ My son hesitates. ‘We’re deciding if we should give him another chance.’ It’s an even split within this particular group. They’ve discussed what to do at lunchtime. Their group concluded their peer needs to learn how to be respectful to others. They include him in the next round of messages. They’ve scaffolded him. Reminds me of the small group inquiry learning taught then practiced and explored in primary classrooms.

I dare to ask: what’s happening with Tinder? Preparing myself for silence or tales. ‘We stopped.’ I stare. ‘We were texting some girls, not Tinder, from Facebook. It was fun. Saying all sorts of things. But I wouldn’t say those things if I knew them. And when I thought about the girls in our group, we decided to stop. What would we say if we met those girls?’

Our teenagers are learning how to socialize and Tinder is one tool. A form of window shopping. Available to anyone ostensibly over 18 who wishes to sign up. These young men have moved on. Tinder was yesterday’s curiosity. What will tomorrow hold? Almost certainly a mix of online social media and the local popular café or library.

What I learned was invaluable: these boys were critically thinking about and discussing their behaviour within their peer group.

I am learning to listen and trust them.

Written by Hermione Loofs

Mother of two sons who negotiates being taught new technologies in exchange for free (almost) computer time.

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