The Screenagers Podcast

Teen Love, Hookups, And How To Talk About It All

Summer's heating up. In today's episode of The Screenagers Podcast, Dr. Delaney Ruston explores how we can help teens have a better understanding of what makes up positive romantic relationships, including physical intimacy. In a past survey, teens between the ages of 14 and 17 were asked what sources help them understand sex. Thirty-one percent responded that helpful information was most likely to come from parents and 22 % said friends. Dr. Ruston says parents are a great resource if they want to take on this challenge and get better at it.

episode notes



Welcome to the Screenagers podcast. I'm Delaney Ruston, a physician and the filmmaker of the Screenagers movies. And this summer, I'm recording podcasts based on my Screenagers’ Tech Talk Tuesday blogs and calling them Blogcasts. Summer's heating up, and today I'm exploring how we can help teens have a better understanding of what makes up positive romantic relationships, including physical intimacy. 


In a past survey, teens between the ages of 14 and 17 were asked what sources help them understand sex. They responded that helpful information was most likely to come from parents, 31%, and 22 % friends. We're a great resource if we want to take on this challenge and get better at it. 

I'm laughing because just yesterday, my daughter said she was walking with a friend, and they were talking about trying to work out their summer jobs and whatnot, and her friend said, well, I think success is growth. And Tessa told me that. She said, Mom, I really like that. As parents, when we take on these complex conversations, this is growth. Do you know why this is so important? Intense negative dramas rule the airwaves. You wouldn't believe the number of 12 and 13-year-olds who I have talked to who have seen the show Euphoria, which depicts the most intense relationship issues happening. And there's a show called You, which also is very intense, and these shows are marketed and seen by young people.


Social media has many ways that shows get marketed to young people. In particular, having the stars of the show who are influencers with huge followings, and then things get posted into feeds all the time. I'm always aware of how few shows depict stories of love and intimacy in teen relationships in a way that I would love teens to see. There are so few media messages about the courtship phase, handholding, having vulnerable talks, ways to handle conflicts maturely, and messaging around sexuality. Again, often it’s the extremes that deal with cruelty and abuse. And then there's pornography, which is a whole topic in itself, which I've written about in several blogs online.


What are ways to open talks about romantic relationships? Well, first: consider sharing your past experiences. Not that long ago, I was talking with my daughter about the phase of falling in love with my husband. I told her how I was a ball of emotions, crying to myself, flooded with how vulnerable I felt. What if things didn't work out? I remember specifically going to a mentor in medical school. He led a support group that some of us were in, and it was incredibly comforting being able to talk with him about these floods of feelings. Oh, those early days, emotions definitely change over time with hard times and good times, but the point was just talking about those early years. Tessa said, Mom, I've never heard you say it in quite that way. And we both looked at each other, and I just felt really good that I had let her know about that time in my life. So that can be really helpful. Sharing stories from our own lives when we felt love, some of the ways that we tried to respect the other person, and what made us feel like we could trust that person.


Moving into the topic of physical intimacy, this is a tricky set of conversations. I know talking to many parents, this can feel really challenging. And as a physician, I know I have a benefit in that I'm used to talking with teens about all sorts of sexuality-related topics, and my job is to make the other person feel as comfortable as possible. And I found all these years that it really helps to jump in and say the words that my patients clearly wanna say, but they're not that comfortable. For example, I thinking of a time in my clinic when a young man said to me, uh uh, well, uh, uh, I'm having, uh, problems with sex and, uh, my penis. That was my clue to help him feel more at ease. And I calmly asked, oh, so you're having problems with, is it having an erection or maintaining one, or is it something else? 

It's really my casual tone that immediately helped him end his hesitancy, and he was able just to start going into the situation. So I have that benefit of just getting comfortable saying these words over and over. I've even had parents whom I've said, you know what? Just practice talking a little bit about this with your partner or another adult or just by yourself if you're having difficulty talking about these kinds of topics. 

You know, we don't have to have tons of conversations about what makes for positive sexual relationships, but being willing to try and have some is clearly a benefit to our kids. It lets them know we can handle the awkwardness, and most importantly, you are laying the groundwork if your teen has an issue and needs to come to you. Not that long ago, a mom told me how her older teen was in a committed relationship, and he called his mom because he had had sex with his girlfriend, and the condom broke. And the mom was so happy that her son knew that he could go to her to discuss the ways to handle the situation.


Books, books, books. They can be such an aid. There's a series called Chicken Soup for the Soul, and it has some fantastic books on all sorts of relationship issues. I recommend Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teens Talk Relationships: Stories about Family, Friends, and Love, leave it on the coffee table, and sure enough, many young people are just gonna pick it up and start paging through it. And if you wanna be more proactive, you can read parts of it yourself and then find some discussion topics, or you and your teen could read a part of it. And then ideas of talking about what you read would come up later on. It's full of little vignettes and letters, so you could just pick something short for a quick read and a quick talk. 

Years ago, I interviewed Tina Schermer Sellers, PhD. She's a researcher on religion and sexual shame, specifically the fact that it should be unwarranted. And she wrote the book, Thank God for Sex. Her book and website have resources for faith-based parents and non-faith-based parents, but specifically different ways to talk about sexuality with kids. 

Another book I'm recommending is gonna surprise you. It's called The Four Hour Body by Tim Ferriss, and he has a section in there about female sexual pleasure, a how-to that I think is really well done. Check it out as an adult. See if you think your child is old enough that this might be something that they should read. I know I've shared it, and I think that it was very well done. 


Sexual pleasure for females is often different than that scene in the media that portrays sex. It's different, and it involves other things. Challenges with these types of talks are a reality. One thing is your teen might not wanna talk to you about these things. It's key to let them have control. And if it's a serious conversation that you really need to be talking about, like something around safe sex or whatnot, you can say to them something like, “I really need to talk to you about one of those awkward sex kinds of topics. It's gonna be brief. Can we do it now? Or, if not, when can we talk about it in the next 24 hours?” This is an example of giving them some control. And always, if you're doing something together, it makes these types of conversations go so much better. If you are literally doing a puzzle or playing a card game,  frisbee golf, walking to a grocery store, playing ping pong, or even playing a video game, these are times that we can have conversations. A dad could say something like, “I remember my first girlfriend and how nervous I was to hold their hand. And then, they don't even need them to respond, but just having a way to bring up short bits about relationships that they absorb is great.


I wanna move on to the topic of hookups. It's not buying into generalizations. One of the biggest ones is that young people no longer have or want relationships. They just wanna hook up. It's a hookup culture. This is a false belief. It's not to say hookups don't happen, but there's an idea that somehow young people have changed, and they don't want romantic relationships. The fact is, when Lisa Wade, who professor and researcher at Tulane University, who's been researching this topic for a long time, studied college students, her research found that only 15 to 20% of college students endorse the hookup culture. They were good with it. It worked for them. But, 73% of males said that they would like to be in a committed relationship, and 70% of females said the same. Yes, more guys than girls. Another college campus study found that 71% of males wished there were more opportunities for finding long-term partners, and 67% of females reported the same


So what is hookup culture? It's defined by sexual encounters between people with no expectations for a relationship to develop. Unlike the words making out when we were young, hooking up is a nebulous term in that it doesn't define what sexual activity happened. And Lisa Wade's research has looked deeply into unspoken rules that surround hookups. One is that you're supposed not to feel emotions, and so there's not supposed to be warmth in the encounter or after the encounter. Often students would tell her that it's about hooking up with someone you don't like — that decreases the chance of catching feelings, meaning actually caring. There's an element of scoring and posting online who you hooked up with. And it's important to not be in touch with that person afterward to really make it clear that this is, was nothing more than just a physical encounter. And she also notes that because of this lack of warmth that happens during any encounter like this that can be lacking, it means things like getting true consent are really hard, and particularly given that alcohol is often on board or other substances, it also can mean pushing boundaries of what happens in the encounter.


There are a lot of problems that can happen in these situations. The majority of students are not in favor of hookup cultures. It's not to say that they don't hook up, but the rules around it are not something that they like, i.e., that you're not supposed to have emotions, etc.


By the way, this idea of hookups and the unwritten rules around them really started in the eighties. And the point is that today's youth have a lot more in common with us parents than we might think. I know there was pressure for that kind of pretending that you wanted to have a casual hookup. For me, I always wanted a boyfriend, and the sexuality component of that is complicated. I did have some boyfriends in high school and college, but it didn't come without situations that I regret. And it's partly why I'm such a believer in letting our kids have people that they can go to that can help them sort out what they really want and what they think they're supposed to want. From my personal experience of 30 years working with teens as a doctor and 11 years researching this topic, I am a strong believer that many of our young people, in line with Lisa Wade's research of college students, really do want positive relationships.


Summer is a really great time to talk with our teens about these issues. 

What is the stereotypical hookup culture and rules that they know about? 

What about the realities of things that are shared online that make it seem like everyone's not having feelings? 

How often do they see something like that? 

We should spend our time working on getting kids to be able to have knowledge and spaces for discussions about what makes up positive relationships. If you listened to this short podcast with a young person in your life, power to you, turn it off now and ask them: 

What did Delaney get right? 

What did, what do you relate to? 

What do you not? 

What's the most awkward conversation you guys have had so far that they remember? 

That's it for this episode of the Screenagers Blogcast, I've been your host, Delaney Ruston, and please email us at info@screenagersmoviecom. Let us know what themes you want to hear this summer. Meanwhile, you can find hundreds of blog posts and many resources on our website at

Ask a question!

Whether it is about a specific episode, a related topic or anything else, Dr. Ruston and the Screenagers Team would love to hear from you.

Record your question here and Dr. Ruston will try to answer them in upcoming Podcast episodes.