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Teens confront new generation of challenges in breaking up

By Laura J. Nelson
Globe Correspondent / July 21, 2011

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Hacking into an ex-girlfriend’s Facebook account to read private conversations. Sending threatening text messages that end with, “Or else.’’ Flirting with an ex-boyfriend’s buddies on Twitter.

Faltering relationships and messy breakups can escalate into public arguments, defamation on social networks, and worse, Massachusetts teenagers said yesterday during a Boston Public Health Commission conference at Northeastern University that focused on the challenges and perils of breakups in the social media age.

They say rapid-fire rumors in text messages and trash talk on Facebook and Twitter make the dating scene all the more baffling for many young people.

“Now more than ever, even since five years ago, teens have a broader landscape to navigate when they start dating,’’ said Casey Corcoran, the conference director and director of Start Strong Initiative, which encourages healthy teenage relationships. “Instead of your friends gossiping at school, you have thousands of kids who are up in your business.’’

Discussions about healthy adolescent relationships have been brought into sharp focus after the body of recent Wayland High School graduate Lauren Astley was found in a swamp and her on-again, off-again boyfriend was charged with murder.

Although that is an extreme example, nearly 10 percent of US high school students have reported being hit, slapped, or physically hurt by their boyfriend or girlfriend in the past year, a 2009 government survey found.

One in three adolescent girls is a victim of physical, emotional, or verbal abuse from a dating partner, according to the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

The conference, Break-Up Summit 2.0, taught attendees to spot unhealthy relationship behavior - like lack of trust or pressure to have sex - gave them strategies to survive breakups, and answered questions about potentially awkward or volatile scenarios.

Can my relationship be official if it isn’t on Facebook? What do I do if he unfriends me after we break up? How do I stop her from spreading rumors about me on Twitter?

(The answers: Yes. Let him have his space. Don’t start a public spat, but ask her privately to stop.)

Gone are the days when parents answered the home phone and listened in on the other line, said Shan Mohammed, director of the master of public health program in urban health at NU, one of the conference’s sponsors.

“There are so many landmines, so many cliques now,’’ Mohammed said, adding that most teenagers do discuss details of relationships with parents but that peer discussions foster community when teens discover others have the same questions.

“If I’m in the middle of a breakup, I’ll put something up on Facebook or Twitter,’’ Cherie Calvert, 19, a student at Curry College, said during a discussion in a session called “Break-ups 101,’’ as others nodded. “It may not mean anything to anybody else but means something to him and me, so he knows I’m directing it at him.’’

Social media can be positive or negative, providing community for young people who seek support that they aren’t getting at home or at school, Corcoran said, citing gay and lesbian teen support networks.

Understanding the repercussions of commenting on a recent breakup or unfriending a former boyfriend can be hard for teenagers whose brains are not fully developed and who do not yet have a good grasp of impulse control, especially when they feel pressured to log in multiple times a day to keep up with friends, plans, and gossip, Corcoran said.

“Adults will sit back and say, ‘Should I do this?’ or ‘Maybe this isn’t a good idea,’ ’’ Corcoran said. “Kids don’t do that, and when stuff that’s on the Internet sticks around forever, that’s a problem.’’

The most common suggestion? Don’t put every detail of your life on Facebook, said conference session leader Kindra Lansburg during the “Delete, Untag, Save’’ session, which focused on creating a plan for online boundaries on Facebook before a breakup occurs.

“But I feel like the entire point of Facebook is to show off to people,’’ said Khaaliqa Roberts, 14, of South Boston, whose ex-boyfriend was also at the conference. “You can’t just not put your relationship status up.’’

That means many relationships that unfold on Facebook unravel there, too.

Laura J. Nelson can be reached at lnelson@globe.com.