A fifth of 11- to 16-year-olds would be happy to have a web-only relationship. But for adults, real life is where the magic starts

How do we love now? With the help, and hindrance, of technology. In many ways, those who are looking for romantic relationships in 2018 could not be doing so at a more auspicious time. I’ve lost count of the number of new dating apps and sites, but there seems to be one for every new relationship that blooms under their auspices.

It’s estimated that one in five of us are meeting our partners online. The internet, for all its faults, has allowed us to redefine modern romance. We no longer have to pick from a finite pool of people who live within our postcode, or try to find further common ground with people who share our views on office temperatures (although, arguably, this isn’t a bad way to find a mate). When we go online, we can connect with anyone, and compatibility comes from shared hobbies, interests and passions, instead of boring old geography.

However, some relationships start through a screen and simply stay there – and an increasing number of young people would prefer to have a relationship that was conducted entirely online. According to a study from the charity Internet Matters, 20% of 11- to 16-year-olds say they would be happy to have an online-only relationship with someone they would never meet. Of those who are already in relationships, 10% say they “speak” online exclusively.

I can understand how an entirely virtual relationship would be enormously appealing to teenagers. During puberty, when your body suddenly seems new and strange, and your feelings are intense and unpredictable, you’re extremely vulnerable. Love is thrilling, but distressingly complex. When you keep it online, some of the messiness is contained. When you curate and share the most perfect version of yourself possible, you limit the risk of rejection – and I suspect that if the online relationship doesn’t work out, it’s a bit easier to recover and move on if you’re not missing that person’s real-life presence. Love can cause problems: the internet has brought us something approaching a solution.

Dating apps on a phone
 ‘Love is thrilling, but distressingly complex. When you keep it online, some of the messiness is contained.’ Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Still, perhaps I’m being sentimental, but I find this news desperately sad. Getting to know someone should be a giddy, joyful exercise. It’s hard to truly know anyone before you’re in a room with them, because our online selves are so curated and limited. I’m all for using the best version of yourself to get someone’s attention – we share the flattering, filtered photo, we talk about the way we participate in sports and culture, we don’t always document the fact that we spend an inordinate amount of time eating Domino’s pizza in our pants.

Yet love is what happens when everything that is initially concealed is slowly revealed. To be secure in love is to know that your partner accepts your flaws, and maybe even finds them appealing. I don’t think you can feel happy or relaxed with a partner when you know they only accept the perfect version of “you”, especially while you’re in the dark about the secrets they might be keeping beyond the screen.

The idea that the virtual world is better and easier to inhabit than the physical one is scarily seductive. Living in the real world comes with considerable risks, but the rewards are enormous too. We know that human touch is good for us, and spending too much time online exacerbates anxiety. When I was at school in the mid-1990s, sex education focused on pain, not pleasure. Sex was seen as frightening, and could lead to unwanted pregnancy and STIs. I wonder if we’ve focused so much on protecting children that we have made all relationships seem terrifying. We have done generations a disservice by neglecting to talk to them about the emotional growth and fulfilment that a positive relationship can bring.

To progress, we need to acknowledge that the internet plays an enormous part in the way we meet people, and its role is growing. When it comes to safety and conduct, we’re keen to warn children away. We tell them to be wary of predators, and to know that they can never be sure who they’re talking to. This is sage advice, but perhaps it’s time to tell them how to recognise the good people who use the internet – and give them the skills and confidence to be prepared when they’re adults to take that relationship offline.