Dr. Wendy Walsh: There were tears in the backseat during a recent carpool ride. One seventh grade girl whom I drive home from school had received a text from her boyfriend that essentially broke off their relationship, giving him room to text another girl and ask her if she wanted to "go out." The only problem is, none of the players in this story had actually gone out, or would go out, or go in, or go anywhere together.
Middle school is a time when adolescents begin to explore relationships with the opposite gender. In my day, we "went around." As in, "Are you and Dave going around?" It essentially meant we would stand in relatively close proximity at recess, and on weekends we might be found in the same group cruising the local mall. By the end of seventh grade, I think there may have been some personal conversations, a brief hand-holding and a short, uncomfortable kiss. All this was Mother Nature's way of gently guiding young humans toward healthy adult romantic relationships. Middle school "couples" tested out communication styles and learned to relate through the awkward ritual of pretend dating.
But digital communication has changed all that. Today, many kids meet, date and break up all via text, without ever uttering a face-to-face word to each other. They may not sit at the same lunch table or even be together in class. Fleeting glances in the hallway may be the extent of their real-world contact. The tears in the back of my car came from a relationship just like that. The two had never even spoken. But the feelings were all too real.
While some parents may think this high-tech version of puppy love is a safe way to date because it involves no physical contact, I beg to differ. Important lessons about communication and emotional intimacy are being lost when our children can't even speak to each other. At the same time, our culture has run amok with sexual messages that separate an emotional relationship from a physical one.
When I questioned the distraught young girl about the nature of her relationship with her boyfriend -- yes, they openly referred to each other as "boyfriend" and "girlfriend," even though they had never spoken -- she told me it would be too dangerous to risk speaking. What if she said the wrong thing?
Kids are becoming handicapped when it comes to intimacy skills. To make the new system even more confusing, physical touch is accepted. She told me her boyfriend had run up to her one day and given her a hug. My heart sank as I envisioned this hit-and-run hug as the precursor of a more mature form of sexual contact: the hook-up without emotions.
Our kids need to learn verbal communication. They need to learn how to express their needs and their boundaries and to know that their words will be respected. If I ever host a boy/girl party, I'm going to ban cell phones and make the kids talk out loud.