From DMs to heart emojis: How social media is redefining gen Z relationships

By Alma Fabiani

Published Aug 28, 2023 at 09:15 AM

Reading time: 8 minutes

As we draw near to the end of what some have called “the summer of breakups” and prepare ourselves for cuffing season, what better time to delve into the many intricacies of gen Z relationships and how social media, along with the rest of the internet, has impacted the many ways us digital natives form romantic bonds?

From gen Z-specific terms like ethical sex-ploration and kittenfishing, to the positives and negatives that come with social media being an integral part of this generation’s dating lives, we’ll leave no stone unturned in this deep dive.

The changing landscape of gen Z relationships

Since the summer of 2013 (which is around the time Tinder took over the world following its launch in December 2012), the online dating game has massively evolved. To give you an idea of just how much our love lives are ruled by dating apps, in 2023, 384 million people are dating online, and two in every five couples meet online.

Considering that gen Zers—people born between 1996 and 2010 for those of you who have been living under a rock—have little to no memory of a world without social media and dating apps, it’s no surprise that the way they meet both friends and romantic partners is so intrinsically tied to these platforms.

While this young demographic has a reputation of excessively depending on social media and being unwilling to commit in romantic relationships (perhaps as a result of growing up with instant gratification, which has since translated into instantaneous online communication in their dating lives), it’s also important to look at the positives of said dependency.

When looking at how gen Z date, it’s hard to disregard the impact this cohort has had on serious issues such as consent, pleasure, and labelling. Older generations, even millennials, didn’t have open conversations about consent when growing up. Sure, perhaps millennials were the ones to lay down the groundwork for us gen Zers to comfortably champion these crucial conversations from such an early age. But we’re the ones who are rewriting the rules of dating.

The same can be said about how gen Zers view sexual pleasure, and what we expect from it. Don’t get me wrong, just like with countless other things, we’re incredibly contradictory—we’re apparently stuck in a “sex recession,” and yet we’re also the kinkiest generation out there. Our approach to sex and romantic relationships is multifaceted because growing up with social media gave us access to a lot more information than our predecessors, in turn making us way more progressive and open-minded.

As reported by Grazia, “while some [gen Zers] are turning away from casual sex, they actually tend to be liberated and diverse in approach. They are also more open about the sexual activity they do engage with. As a generation, they also put an emphasis on understanding boundaries, safety and the importance of mental and sexual health within hook-up culture.”

Just like with the news that we consume, we value quality over quantity. That’s not to say that we don’t know how to have fun though. Our loathing of traditional relationship labels has allowed us to embrace the grey areas of dating and subsequently not to prioritise establishing committed romantic relationships the same way our older peers once did.

Although gen Z are still finding new ways to satisfy those wants and needs that fit better into their lives, we’ve made some serious progress with the help of different types of labels than the outdated ones millennials and older generations were once stuck with. I know, I know, we hate labels and yet we’re the ones creating countless new ones. We’re full of contradictions, I did try and warn you.

But before we get into the nitty-gritty of slang words our generation has invented when it comes to everything generation Z dates and relationships, let’s first delve into many ways social media affects our we approach and build romantic relationships.

7 social media effects on relationships

From obvious consequences like making it easier for individuals to meet potential partners and connect with users across the globe, to negative effects such as increased anxiety and our addiction to smartphones, all the way down to positive changes in our dating habits, here are the seven key effects of social media platforms on gen Z’s love lives. Don’t worry, I won’t bore you with generation Z social media statistics.

More frequent communication

Social media has revolutionised the way generation Z interacts within both platonic and romantic relationships, ushering in an era of unprecedented connectivity. With platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok and even Facebook, this generation is provided with instant and continuous access to communication, shaping the dynamics of their relationships in profound ways.

On the positive side, this constant connection allows us digital natives to maintain stronger ties despite physical distance. It fosters a sense of belonging and helps build intimacy through frequent updates and interactions. However, the flip side is that the boundary between personal and public realms has somewhat blurred. For many, online presence has become a performance, in turn affecting authenticity and vulnerability in some of our relationships.

No matter how many emojis we use and how many acronyms and slang terms we come up with, the instant nature of social media can often lead to misunderstandings due to the lack of non-verbal cues and context. The pressure that comes with having to consistently portray an idealised version of our lives can contribute to anxiety and insecurity, undermining self-esteem and straining relationships.

Despite these challenges, gen Zers have managed to successfully navigate this digital landscape, learning to balance the benefits of constant communication with the need for genuine, offline connections.

Easier to meet partners

Social media platforms, along with dating apps, have also made it easier for generation Z to meet potential partners—duh. From Tinder, Hinge and Bumble to Instagram and TikTok, we have constant access to a virtual arena where interaction is king, which inevitably expands our dating pool beyond geographical boundaries.

The convenience of these platforms allows for initial interactions without the pressure of face-to-face encounters. Gen Zers can explore shared interests and values through profiles, fostering a sense of compatibility before having to commit to a physical meeting. This can either lead to more efficient partner selection based on personal preferences or allow us more time to ‘play around’ and discover what we’re looking for in the first place.

Social media empowers gen Zers to forge connections with potential partners through dynamic and accessible platforms. Yet, the journey from online interaction to meaningful relationships demands a balance between the digital and real worlds, ensuring that authentic connections aren’t overshadowed by the allure of the virtual realm. And boy, it is hard.

Connections across the globe

Social media isn’t just a platform for posting OOTD, GRWM and ‘a day in the life’ videos (although those are essential, no doubt). It’s a global playground where younger generations swing on the digital monkey bars, connecting with pals from Perth to Paris faster than you can press that ‘follow’ button. The internet has taken the old pen-pal concept and supercharged it with emoji-laden conversations that traverse time zones before you finish your morning coffee.

Thanks to this interconnectivity, young minds are expanding faster than a marshmallow in a microwave. They’re swapping cultural insights, language quirks, and memes that defy translation, creating a smorgasbord of understanding that would make even the most seasoned diplomat envious. Gen Zers are experts on international slang, global cuisine, and can spot the difference between a British biscuit and an American cookie from a thousand pixels away.

Increased anxiety

Many people, especially gen Zers, grapple with relationship anxieties despite the fact that (gen Alpha put aside), we’re the youngest generation out there, meaning that we’ve had fewer years of traumatic dating experiences to leave us so scarred. And yet, here we are. Prioritising the improvement of our emotional and relational intelligence is definitely more beneficial than attempting to control the future or someone else’s actions—trust me, I’ve been there, I’ve done it. But that’s easier said than done.

While these platforms offer a plethora of opportunities to meet and interact with both like-minded and wildly different individuals, they also contribute significantly to relationship-related stressors. Many gen Zers, consumed by the online portrayal of seemingly perfect relationships, experience heightened anxiety over their own relationships’ status (or lack thereof) and trajectory.

Comparison and self-doubt are unavoidable when faced with others’ perfectly curated snippets of their lives. This has led to a common FOMO, even in our love lives, in turn fueling relationship insecurities. Our need to anticipate and control the future probably stems from our constant exposure to idealised narratives online. Even things as mundane as TikTok trends can now impact how gen Z feel about and behave within their own relationships. Such trends might not only strain relationships but also hinder personal growth in emotional and relational intelligence.

Prioritising open communication, empathy, and understanding over the need for online validation can help mitigate anxiety-driven behaviours. Nurturing genuine connections in both the digital and real worlds can lead to more fulfilling relationships and, importantly, a healthier sense of self-worth.

High screen time

Gen Zers spend an average of four hours a day on social media, with a whopping 38 per cent spending even more than that. In other words, hours spent on our smartphones melt like ice cream on a summer sidewalk. We’ve turned multitasking into a high art form, juggling screens like circus performers. But hold up, before you sound the alarm, let’s peek at the bright side of this modern spectacle.

Gen Z isn’t just scrolling through endless memes—though those are still MVPs. We’re also absorbing a digital universe of ideas, opinions, and inspirations from around the globe, all without leaving the comfort of our own homes. Our screens are gateways to knowledge, connecting us to a world of learning that textbooks could only dream of.

We’re networking, collaborating, and meeting individuals we learn so much from. So, here’s to Gen Z’s incredibly high screen time, a digital blend that’s shaping a new generation of global citizens, one Wi-Fi signal at a time.

Access to dating advice

Social media has emerged as a megaphone for generation Z to communicate, curate, and navigate the intricacies of their relationships. This tech-savvy cohort, born and raised in the era of connectivity, is leveraging platforms like never before to unravel the mysteries of relationship dynamics, set boundaries, and even redefine traditional labels. It’s almost like relationships and social media go hand-in-hand for younger individuals.

One of the most profound impacts of social media on gen Z’s relationships lies in its capacity to foster open dialogue about these often-confusing matters. In the past, discussions about relationship boundaries and labels might have been confined to late-night heart-to-hearts or fumbling conversations over drinks. But now, the digital stage allows for candid conversations to flourish without the awkwardness of face-to-face interactions.

‘Are we exclusive?’ or ‘What are we, exactly?’ are no longer taboo questions left unasked. Instead, gen Z has embraced the hashtag as a badge of transparency, letting the world know exactly where they stand. Instagram posts soft launch relationships, TikTok duets ignite romantic interest and dating apps help us figure out what (or who) we’re looking for exactly.

Moreover, social media encourages a level of self-discovery that aids in forging healthy relationship dynamics. We’re taking advantage of platforms to share our interests, beliefs, and aspirations, giving potential partners a sneak peek into our lives before the first date. This enables us to establish connections with like-minded individuals and ensures that compatibility isn’t just skin-deep. Whether it’s a shared passion for environmental activism or an obsession with Taylor Swift, these online expressions allow relationships to sprout from a foundation of genuine commonalities.

But perhaps the most revolutionary aspect is gen Z’s ability to challenge and redefine traditional relationship labels. In an era of fluid identities and evolving norms, the one-size-fits-all labels of the past seem like relics. Social media acts as a catalyst for these discussions, giving voice to non-binary identities, open relationships, and other alternative dynamics that may have once been relegated to hushed conversations.

Platforms provide safe spaces to explore these topics, share experiences, and seek advice without fear of judgment. This opens the door to relationships that are authentically tailored to the needs and desires of those involved, rather than conforming to societal expectations.

Challenging relationship standards

On social media, the norms of relationships are being deconstructed, reconstructed, and redesigned—not just for gen Zers, but for everyone. But it should be noted that gen Z is spearheading this movement, in turn inspiring other generations to challenge traditional relationship standards.

These digital natives are the architects of a newfound authenticity. Through platforms like Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, and more, they’ve stripped relationships of their airbrushed veneers and embraced imperfections. Gen Z isn’t afraid to showcase relationship struggles, growth, and triumphs in all their unfiltered glory. This honesty has an electric effect, tearing down the antiquated façade of perfection and replacing it with a refreshing honesty that resonates across demographics.

Social media has also fostered a communal conversation about equality and inclusivity in relationships. Our generation’s advocacy for LGBTQIA+ rights, non-binary identities, and diverse partnerships has rippled beyond the pixels of our screens. By consistently amplifying marginalised voices, we’re dismantling heteronormative and monolithic relationship standards, fostering a space where love knows no boundaries and respect is the bedrock.

Furthermore, gen Z is recalibrating the power dynamics within relationships through online discourse. Consent, communication, and mutual respect are heralded as cornerstones, not optional add-ons. They’re initiating vital dialogues about consent culture, boundaries, and emotional intelligence, shattering the narratives that have perpetuated problematic and harmful behaviours in the past.

Social media isn’t just a playground for us; it’s a global stage where we’re rewriting the scripts of relationships for all. Gen Z’s openness, advocacy, and fearless challenging of the status quo is weaving a fabric of inclusivity and equality. By dismantling unrealistic expectations, embracing diversity, and forging new paths in communication, gen Zers are crafting a legacy of relationship standards that promises healthier, more equitable connections for generations to come.

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