Our rising sign. Politics. Our parents’ relationship. For better or worse, these things affect our dating lives. But maybe, just maybe, none as much as social media, which has introduced a whole new set of dating, pre-dating, and post-dating rituals and milestones that didn’t exist even a few years ago.
Despite our prayers, there is no official rulebook that lays out exactly how to toe the line between flirty and thirsty, conscientious and sheepish, and bold and boundary-crossing. “There isn’t [one], because there’s no one-size approach to how you interact with [people you’re dating] online,” says Philadelphia-based psychologist Taryn Marie Stejskal Ph.D., LMFT. “Things happen at different times for different couples — that has always been true.”
Figuring out what makes sense in your situationship requires a combination of self-reflection, communication, and respect. If you’re already in an established dynamic, Christopher Ryan Jones, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist with a specialty in sex therapy, believes any social-media action that involves the other person(s) should be discussed with them. The goal is to articulate what each of you want and find a compromise that makes everyone feel comfortable and seen.
If you’re trying to figure out what’s OK in regards to interacting with someone you haven’t yet met IRL, it’s a little trickier. Generally, it boils down to this: ask permission first.
There may not be one right timeline, but according to experts, there are some specifics to consider before taking action, based on where you’re at in your relationship.
When you can slide into someone’s DMs
“The whole point of the DM is that you’re sending something too risky to comment with the intent of having a witty or flirty exchange,” says Emma Z., 28.
In general, DMs are most successful (read: not immediately ignored) when the people involved have an established social-media rapport. On Twitter, that means at least a handful of retweets. On Instagram, you’ve already dropped emoji replies on their feed.
Of course, there are exceptions. Rachel G., 27 slid into her now-girlfriend’s DM’s with zero pre-established rapport. “I saw that she posted about ‘Stone Butch Blues,’ and I had recently come out and was reading the book, too. My first message was simply sharing that I was also reading the book and asking how far along she was,” she says. Her now-girlfriend responded immediately, and after a week of Instagram DM-ing, they met in person and have been dating ever since.
Whatever your relationship with the person is, you should avoid being overtly sexual, according to sexologist Jill McDevitt, Ph.D. Aim instead to be friendly. Pick one common denominator or talking point (a book, a love of brunch, etc.) and start there.
But — and this is important — if the person doesn’t respond, there are no follow-ups allowed. Don’t be creepy.
When you can start a Snapchat streak with someone
“It’s creepy to follow someone who you don’t know on Snapchat,” says Becky B., 25. “And it remains creepy until you’ve met a few times.” Sure, sometimes you’ll exchange Snapchat handles at a bar or spot someone’s in their Tinder profile. But she prefers to wait to add someone on Snapchat until she at least has their phone number.
Amy W., 34 agrees. “I’ve had guys who don’t even have my number try to start a Snapchat streak with me, and I immediately block them. It’s a serious red flag.”
Ryan V., 30 offers one caveat: “If you have a sexting-only relationship with someone, it’s totally kosher to add them to Snapchat, even if you’ve never met them. It makes the whole sending-photos-thing less suspect.”
Regardless, Stejskal says your best bet is to ask someone if it’s OK to add them on Snapchat. “You never know somebody’s social-media boundaries unless you ask,” she says.
When you can reply to their Snap
Once two people have added each other on Snapchat, it’s totally fine to reply to Snaps. “I’m pretty selective about who I connect with on Snapchat, so if I add you, I probably want to see your face,” Amy says.
But don’t overdo it. If you’re constantly replying to their Snaps, and they’re never replying to yours, ease off. “It’s not weird if you Snap-reply me. It’s weird if you reply to all my Snaps and I don’t reciprocate,” says Ryan. Basically, it’s like double texting.
When you can follow someone on Instagram
Matching with someone on Tinder does not greenlight you to follow them on Instagram, especially if they’re private — and neither does just messaging or texting them.
“I have it be very, very clear that there will be a [second] date before [I accept] an Instagram follow request,” says Meredith T., 22. “But if they decided to wait until the fifth or sixth date, I wouldn’t be mad about it.”
Stejskal believes Meredith has the right idea. “Looking at someone’s social media allows you to skip chapters in the book of someone’s life and jump right to chapter 16,” she says. “I [once] found out that someone I was seeing’s mom suddenly passed away two years ago on Instagram, not from an in-person conversation, which felt wrong.”
There are also risks associated with the fact that people present a very curated version of themselves and their lives on social media. “The data you think you’re getting might not even be accurate,” adds Stejskal.
If you are following someone on Instagram so you can make an informed decision about whether or not it’s a good idea to go on a date with them, that’s fair. But it’s hardly a fail-safe plan. “Understand that what someone posts doesn’t guarantee anything, including your safety,” says Stejskal. “If your gut is telling you that this person may [be questionable], it’s likely best to listen to that.”
When you can like or comment on their photos
Go ahead and hit the heart liberally. But if the relationship is new, don’t start double-tapping older photos — nobody wants to feel like you’ve back-stalked them to freshman year of high school.
As for comments, read the room. If you spot a photo of your crush or potential boo holding a diploma or their recently earned CrossFit trainer certification, go ahead and congratulate them alongside everybody else. The same idea applies if their dog or grandma recently passed — feel free to offer your condolences.
But before you go leaving drooling or heart-eye emojis, or a flirty comment on a selfie or group pic, social-media strategist Josselyn Thorton urges you to remember comments are totally public. “If you leave a flirty or suggestive comment too soon, you could come across as possessive, clingy, and overwhelming, and not supportive and sweet.”
Carolyn M., 25, prefers to hold off on commenting until she’s been on several good dates with someone. “Your ex could see it, their ex could see it — commenting before you even know if [your relationship with this person] is a good thing or not and has staying power is a recipe for drama,” she says.
And if your intention is to flirt, make sure you know that this person is available. A flirty comment is a big step because all of their other followers can see it, and it symbolizes that you are together or about to be, says Jones. So why not wait until you are actually together?
When you can add someone’s Instagram post to your story
If their IG post is an inspirational quote, you’re free to hit share without thinking too much of it — especially if you’re someone who generally re-posts that kind of thing to your story.
If their post is a photo of people — including themselves, their friends, their coworkers, or their family members — hold off until you are deep in the relationship. And even then, only on anniversaries, birthdays, and holidays.
“I would be so freaked out if someone posted a photo of me on their Instagram story,” says Frankie C., 31. The only time it wouldn’t send up alarm bells is if the photo was of him and the person.
The same rules apply if you’re dating an *influencer*. “I have a lot of people sharing my posts to their IG story every single day,” says one person with 100k-plus followers. “I love when strangers do it — it tells me I’m making good content. But I don’t want someone I’m dating to do that. I don’t ever want to feel like I’m dating a fan.”
When you can follow or start interacting with their friends and family
Your boo’s mom following you on Instagram? (Usually) cute. You following their mom, unprompted? Please don’t.
If the former happens, “you and your partner should talk about it,” says Stejskal. “Ask them how they’d like you to handle the situation.” The plan of action you decide on will likely vary based on what kind of stuff you post. I, for instance, review sex toys on my Instagram, so I blocked all of my partner’s family members after his sister-in-law found me there.
According to Katherine M. Hertlein, Ph.D., a professor with the couple and family therapy program at UNLV’s School of Medicine, you may also choose to block someone’s family and friends to keep them from discovering political information they may not agree with. “If your partner has a conservative family, and you’re constantly posting about democratic presidential candidates, your partner may want to limit social-media interactions to limit potential conflict,” she says.
As for you following their friends or family? You and your partner should talk about what level of interaction they’re comfortable with you having with those people online and vice versa, says Stejskal. Be specific. Is liking their posts okay? What about commenting? And how about having a conversation with them via DM?
When you can include them in a Snap, IG story, or IG post
“The length of the relationship isn’t a determining factor, the nature of the relationship and each of your viewpoints on social media are,” says Stejskal.
“I think you should wait for at least six months of seeing each other, and at least four of those need to have been exclusively if folks are monogamous,” says Meredith.
“Almost immediately for Snap, three to four months of hooking up for an IG story (but only if you like them and are okay with all the people you’ve previously hooked up with seeing it), and like a year before posting on IG,” says Faith G., 27.
“I only post photos of my primary partner on social media, because that’s a boundary we established early on in our relationship,” says Amanda C., 23 who dates polyamorously.
It’s likely you’ve got your own opinion around when is a good time for each of these actions. But ultimately your opinion isn’t the deciding factor here — the conversation you have and conclusion you come to with your partner is. To make communication smoother, hang your hat on a specific instance. For example, you might say, “I really love that photo we took together the other week, and I want to share it. But we haven’t talked about social-media boundaries. Can we?”
If you and your partner are not on the same page, Hertlein suggests sticking to the more reluctant partner’s timeline. You can always revisit the conversation. “As the intensity of a relationship builds, if someone feels hesitant to introduce you to their friends and family and integrate you into their life, it’s a red flag,” she says. “The same concept applies to social media. If your partner feels reluctant to introduce you digitally, that may eventually become a red flag.”