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Young love in a digital age: recovering from break-ups

It’s Valentine’s Day and with this month’s theme of recovery in mind, Parent Zone writer Marjun Ziarati looks at how parents and professionals can help young people recover from relationship break-ups in the digital age.

Teenage love can be a minefield for parents. Picking up the pieces of a heartbroken teenager has never been simple. But has the digital age changed anything about the way young people cope when a relationship comes to an end?

Digital Romance – a research project carried out by Brook and CEOP – explores young people’s use of technology in their romantic relationships. The report found that the majority of young people feel they haven’t received sufficient education in how to manage healthy relationships.

So what do parents and professionals need to know, to help young people recover when relationships come to an end? CEOP’s Dr Elly Hanson answers our questions based on her insight from the Digital Romance report.

ʻMany young people find it hard to resist checking up on their ex onlineʼ

Have relationship break-ups become harder for young people to recover from in a digital age? 

When it comes to the breaking up part, technology has certainly made it much easier. Our report found that messaging is the most common means of ending a teenage relationship.

Although this might feel less respectful to the person receiving the bad news, some young people said that avoiding face-to-face contact gave them more privacy, allowing them to hide difficult feelings such as embarrassment.

When it comes to recovering from the break-up, whilst this has been hard in all times and places, some aspects of the digital age may have made it more difficult.

Many young people find it hard to resist the temptation of checking up on their ex online. 54% of our participants reported doing so, whilst at the same time 54% said they had removed their ex from their social media accounts.

It seems that technology can exacerbate post-break-up preoccupation and ambivalence, giving young people the means to keep ‘scratching an itch’ even if they know they probably shouldn’t.

ʻTechnology can offer young people immediate access to discussion forums, blogs, vlogs and supportive friends to help them through a hard timeʼ

Can technology and the digital world help a young person recover?

Technology is often a critical route to the better days ahead. It can offer young people immediate access to discussion forums, blogs, vlogs and supportive friends to help them through a hard time.

On the other hand, intense messaging, even with close friends, can freeze emotionally difficult moments in time, making them harder to forget. As ‘Emily’, one of our participants, reflected:

‘I was messaging my friends saying how upset he’s made me. Then I just… I know that if I look back on the messages, I'm gonna feel really embarrassed, so I just thought, “I’ll just stop.”’

What do adults need to be aware of, post-break-up?

The report identified post-break-up as a high-risk period for harmful digital practices. We need to be aware that young people who are in this ‘zone’ will need support to cope with hurtful actions from others online, or in refraining from perpetrating those actions.

Many young people involved in our research said they wanted their parents to talk to them more openly in everyday conversations about relationships (the good and the bad, the offline and online elements), and to be there and understand when things went wrong.

ʻ28% of our participants reported receiving nasty comments from their ex or ex’s friends online after a relationship had endedʼ

How can I support a young person who may be feeling angry and want revenge from an ex?

Tech provides an all-too-easy means of turning hurt or anger at an ex into aggression. Indeed, 28% of our participants reported receiving nasty comments from their ex or ex’s friends online after a relationship had ended.

It may be helpful to have a conversation about anger: explore why it’s an important emotion (how it can be useful) and how powerful it is. Invite them to weigh up the pros and cons of various ways of acting on their anger or holding back on it.

They could think about the saying ‘resentment is drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die’ and discuss adaptive ways through which they could express their anger, like creative writing, music, a diary, or even a punch-bag!

What if they are worried that their ex may use images against them?

Depending on the situation it may be helpful for the young person to ask their ex to delete any images they have. If they both have images, then they could mutually agree to doing so, recognising that ‘morally’ images belong to the person(s) in them.

The young person, or someone else appropriate, may want to remind their ex that if they share inappropriate images they are breaking the law, their social media accounts may be shut down and it could affect their future opportunities.

It could also be helpful to have a discussion with their ex about how break-ups can bring out the worst in us all, and there is a strength in rising above the temptation to hurt by channelling our feelings elsewhere.

On a more practical note, it might be helpful for the worried young person to plan for how they might deal with this situation were it to happen, including their routes to reporting it and getting images taken down from mainstream social media platforms.


You can read CEOP and Brook’s Digital Romance report here.

Related articles:

Young people want more education on healthy relationships

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Check out our Recovery Directory here