By Tara Doll
For teenagers like Mohamed Abdalla, 17, social media is increasingly replacing face-to-face contact as a primary source of social interactions, and sometimes, even romantic relationships.
When his cousin posted a photo of herself side-by-side with a girl from Canada on Instagram, Mohamed, a senior at New Foundations Charter High School, viewed the girl as attractive and followed her on the app. He gave a “like” to many of her pictures, and even left a comment on one of her posts, to which she replied.
“I guess I was interested in seeing what would come of that,” Mohamed said. “I thought I had the go-to to start privately messaging her.”
In an age where Gen-Z and the majority of young people are constantly occupied by mobile devices, it is only natural that they are more inclined to use this technology to connect with those around them, especially with those who may serve as a potential romantic interest.
“Social media plays a critical role in connecting teens to new friends, allowing teens to learn more about new friends and get to know them better,” Amanda Lenhart, a senior research specialist at the Pew Research Center, said in a 2015 report on social media and relationships. “Nearly two-thirds of teens who have made a new friend online say they have met new friends on a social media platform.”
In early February, the topic of private messaging was on the rise as the hashtag #WeMetOnTwitter was topping the charts on Twitter’s “Trending Now” page. The hashtag was filled with users telling stories of their various romantic Twitter interactions, both positive and negative.
The posts ranged from the stories of long-distance relationships and their road to marriage, side-by-side photos of initial direct messages and the couple photos a year later. There were even some sarcastic tweets of guys and girls having their message attempts being left on “read,” or even being blocked.
Mohamed’s initial Instagram interaction sparked a long-distance relationship through direct messaging on Instagram as well as Facebook Messenger. But, even if a romantic relationship doesn’t blossom, Mohamed said, it is a good way to meet people. His on-and-off long-distance relationship eventually turned into a long-lasting friendship.
Mohamed and the rest of Gen Z, those born after 1995, have grown up in the height of technological and communication advancement.
This communication flows through Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, and more — and all of these social media platforms allow people to better contact those both near and far, with each bringing their own individuality to touchscreen devices.
On Instagram, it is common to post a selfie — or dozens. In addition to the self-confidence boost one may receive from posting these photos, they can even be used to initiate relationships.
In many instances, there is an unspoken rule in which, if someone likes a few of your recent posts in bulk, and you like theirs in return and they continue the trend, a potential romantic interest could be present. With social media, this is the modern spin on the old-age tactic of flirting.
“Online dating offers a number of ways to get to know a potential date before meeting in person,” said Jeremy Nicholson, an expert in personality psychology, in Psychology Today. “Such computer-mediated communication allows for safe and convenient interaction, without much risk or time commitment.”
But, Nicholson explained, these interactions don’t come without pitfalls.
“Some of the cues and features that build attraction cannot be accomplished through a computer. So, such computer-mediated communication may have an artificial and unemotional quality,” Nicholson said.
When asked about the pros of using these social media outlets to meet potential partners, Mohamed explained that you can fine-tune your online appearance to be more appealing, which can work in your favor.
“You can act in ways you wouldn’t act normally,” he said. “You can be any person you want to be.”
Kick-starting relationships through the phone hasn’t always worked out for Mohamed, though, as he has had some less-than-great experiences.
Mohamed said it was easy to fall victim to “catfishing” — being swindled by someone who pretends to be another — when meeting solely over the internet. In addition, he noted that if your primary connection is through social media, it can be difficult to measure the faithfulness of your counterpart.
In one instance, Mohamed used the dating app MeetMe, and found a girl who lived in Pittsburgh. He sent her a message asking how she was, and the two began to message back and forth regularly, before beginning to make more frequent phone calls. After nearly a month of communicating with each other, Mohamed asked her to be his girlfriend, and she accepted.
After a while of being labeled a couple, Mohamed felt that his girlfriend seemed to be losing interest in him, but he assumed this was temporary.
Then, late one night, nearing 3 a.m., Mohamed received a message from his girlfriend’s account. The message was from someone who claimed to be a friend of hers, telling Mohamed that his girlfriend had been in a car accident and was in a coma.
Disoriented and barely awake, he went on her Instagram and Facebook accounts to try to find out more, but could not access them.
He asked his close friend to check her accounts, and the boy could, in fact, see her posts. Mohamed’s girlfriend had blocked him on social media, and told him that she was in a coma while claiming to be one of her friends. This marked the end of the relationship.
It is clear that sometimes relationships formed through social media are quite complicated and do not always work out, but the same goes for relationships that started through school, work, or even a night out.
“Online had a lot of opportunities, but in real life, it was more genuine,” Mohamed said. “I had success and failure with both methods.”