Columnist

Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski is the founder and director of the Washington Health System Teen Outreach. She responds to 6–8 questions from young people daily and has written 'Ask Mary Jo' since 2005.

Q. Can you fall in love with someone you only know online? My gram says yes and my dad says no.

Since COVID-19, most of my friends are people I’ve met online.

My old school friends are distant. When I text they sometimes don’t text back. I met a few new people online during school classes. Our school is huge. A few are older, like 16 or 17 – I take AP classes where grades are mixed together.

I think these online friends are different from any old online person I could “meet” in a chat or on an online game. They’re from my school.

Over the last months, I talk to one person more than any other. She “gets me.” Like I said, my gram is cool about it. She thinks it’s cute – which is kind of a problem too. My dad is ballistic. Not only does he think I’m too young to know what love is, he is convinced I cannot fall in love without meeting someone in person. He’s threatening to take my phone and monitor me online. I need this person so I feel less lonely.

This isolation is too long.

I stay remote for learning because we are protecting my gram from the virus. I don’t mind. I just don’t get why my dad won’t trust me to make good choices about my friend. My grades are great. I don’t try to sneak out or break any of my dad’s many rules. I just want to spend time with my friend, who maybe I love. Why is my dad so protective?

— 14-year-old

Mary Jo’s response: My short answer is, yes, two people can fall in love online.

The capacity for love is limitless. I’ve served and taught young people since before the internet existed. As soon as young people began to connect online, they began to develop friendships. At times, those friendships became deep. I’ve known many teens who fell in love with someone they met and connected with virtually.

Not all online relationships are healthy. Not all in-person relationships are healthy.

A healthy relationship is based on trust, honesty, respect, mutual support, consent, communication and cooperation. In a healthy relationship, people do not take advantage of one another. At your age, an online friend or partner would not encourage you to lie to a parent or break rules. Is your online relationship healthy?

One of the challenges of meeting someone online is the unknown. Catfishing, where a person pretends to be someone they are not, does happen. Your school connection to your online friends eases anxiety about the possibility of duplicity, although it is easier to present oneself as perfect online.

COVID-19 and the pandemic have forced young people into situations where social connection is difficult. Many teens are lonely. You’re not alone.

You ask why your dad is protective. You are his responsibility. When he looks at you, he sees the baby he was given to raise. Parenting is a powerful job. Little ones are vulnerable. Involved parents protect. The challenge is you’re growing into an adolescent with a drive to be independent. If you can step back and see your dad’s actions as based in love for you, it may be easier.

Try talking with your dad. Have a conversation about relationships. Explain your loneliness as you did with me. Share your feelings. Love is often difficult to define, but it is a strong emotion. Ask your dad how he knew he was in love as he matured. He may forget what it was like to be 14, and he was never your age in a pandemic. Ask him to see this through your eyes.

If you are viewing this relationship without being honest with yourself – if the relationship is not healthy – it is important to admit the truth.

It sounds as if your gram will offer you support, even if you cringe when she thinks your relationship is “cute.” The best way to find peace with both relationships – your online one and your relationship with your dad – is by connection and communication. Good luck.

Peer Educator response: In-person relationships are important, even in a pandemic. It is easier to online date than to date in person because you can meet more people with your interests.

Dating online helps you find people you can relate to with a wider range. The beginning levels of love are achievable, but the deeper levels of love are harder online. It’s also hard to see a full personality online, but that can be tough face to face, too.

Since your online relationship is with someone you know, catfishing isn’t as likely, but your friends may only be showing you part of themselves. As for being protective, get in line. Our parents are protective, too.

Have a question? Send it to Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski’s email podmj@healthyteens.com.

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