Digital Devices and the Ever-Changing Mating Game

Whatever the technology, humans find a way to use it for love and romance.

Posted Feb 05, 2014

Who Got Mail?

Whatever the technology, humans inevitably seem to find a way to use it to find and develop romance. For instance, the advent of the wheel allowed people to travel from one town to the next, widening the circle of potential suitors and making it easier to stay in contact while courting. The automobile did the same, just better and faster, while also doubling as a convenient make-out venue. And the telephone allowed dating couples (especially teenagers) to talk endlessly at all hours of the day and night, maintaining intimate emotional contact between dates. For the most part these technological advances have occurred relatively far apart, allowing significant amounts of time for society to adapt and incorporate whatever it is that’s new. In other words, throughout most of history technology has slowly expanded the backyard dating pond and gradually increased our ability to stay in contact with potential partners.

Then we got the Internet and everything went totally bonkers.

If you’re old enough, you probably remember the 1998 hit movie You’ve Got Mail, in which Joe and Kathleen (played by Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan) maintained a poignant chat-room romance. In the 16 years since this film’s release, the online dating scene has evolved to the point where Joe and Kathleen would scarcely recognize it. For starters, the 1998 chat scene was entirely text-driven and, as Joe and Kathleen found out, you never knew for certain who you were talking to. Sure, people did sometimes post a photo with their profile, but there was no way to know if the picture was actually their own. For all you knew that hot blonde that turned you on like crazy was really an 80-year-old retired carny named Toothless Elmer. And even if the profile photo really was your chat partner’s, there was no way to know if it was recent. Needless to say, a lot of the chat partners who chose to meet IRL (in real life) were seriously disappointed by the person who showed up.

Now, of course, we have video chat, which eliminates much of the “fudging” about what people look like. Still, a chat partner can pretend to be single, employed, and well educated when in fact he or she is actually married, reliant on his or her spouse for financial support, and hasn’t cracked a book since Dick and Jane in first grade. This, of course, can present problems if you’re online looking for a serious relationship. Nevertheless, the digital scene today is much more conducive to finding “the one” than ever before.

Bigger Pond = More Fish

In days of yore the dating pond was essentially a small puddle. People met potential mates through family members and friends, in school, at work, or maybe in a bar, and that was about it. On the rare occasions when a person met someone who didn’t live nearby there was hardly any point in pursuing a relationship, no matter how attractive and charming they found that other person, because the logistics of long-distance dating were far too difficult. Thus, the vast majority of romantic relationships were formed and maintained in the immediate vicinity or not at all.

In today’s tech-crazy world this is no longer the case. In fact, as discussed in my recent book Closer Together, Further Apart (coauthored with Dr. Jennifer Schneider) it is perfectly possible for a woman from Paris, TX to meet a man from Paris, France in any number of online venues (video chat, political forums, social media, dating sites/apps, hookup sites/apps, and more). And the fact that these two people don’t live in the same town (or even on the same continent) is no longer a significant barrier to developing a long-term relationship. In fact, these two Parisians can meet online, flirt via texts and sexts, spend quality time together on “video dates,” be physically intimate using webcams and teledildonic devices, and even brag about their relationship to their friends via social media - all without ever being in the same room.

The simple truth of modern dating is that we now have more options than ever. Millions of people have online dating profiles on all sorts of dating sites/apps, complete with biographical information, photos, and even videos. It is true that some digital dating services are more relationship-oriented while others are more overtly sexual, and it can take a bit of time and effort to find out if you and the person you’re chatting with are on the same page in terms of what you are looking for. But this is no different than meeting someone at a party or in a bar. Best of all, there are dating sites/apps catering to specific needs, desires, and populations, such as (Christian), (Jewish), (African American), (gay men), (lesbian women), and just about anything else that might float your boat.

Interestingly, it’s not just young people who’ve taken to digital dating. In fact, older adults often view the chance to meet people online as a welcome alternative to ill-conceived blind dates and sexually charged singles bars. Digital dating is especially useful for busy parents. Consider Anne, a 43-year-old divorced working mother of three:

My ex-husband and I married right out of college - too young, and before either of us really understood what being married is all about. We toughed it out for as long as we could, but shortly after our third child was born - I was 29 when that happened - we decided to call it quits. At first I was OK with being a single working mother of three very active kids. That alone took up all my time. But then the kids got a little older and they wanted some space. Suddenly I had free-time and I wasn’t sure what to do with it. One of my friends suggested I go online and set up a dating profile. I did that, and I was totally honest - single mother of three hoping to meet someone fun and interesting who likes kids. I still haven’t met Mr. Right, but I’ve had a lot of fun dating, just like I did in high school and college. It’s been a good experience, and I’m glad I took the chance.

What defines a relationship in the digital age?

At this point a lot of people may be wondering, is virtual-world dating as real and meaningful as in-the-flesh dating? Are today’s online interactions as healthy and life-affirming as yesterday’s face-to-face courtships? Generally speaking, healthy, intimate, trusting relationships require the following: respect, support, quality time, validation, affection, vulnerability, and trust. And while there is clearly no virtual equivalent to the warmth of a real-world hug or kiss (at least not yet), digital interactions for the most part do measure up, enabling people to meet and to remain in constant contact (more so than ever!) while laying the foundation for a healthy long-term relationship.

Despite the sometimes legitimate reservations many people have about digital dating (mostly that it is still very easy to lie about things like education, financial wellbeing, and current relationship status), it appears that technology used for romantic purposes, especially when technology-driven romantic interaction is paired with real-world dates, can indeed propel relationships forward. In fact, numerous studies show that texts, sexts, posts, tweets, video chats, and the like can speed the “getting to know you” process by lowering inhibitions and allowing potential partners to become more genuine with each other, more quickly. The simple truth is that for some people a racy text message can be every bit as enticing as a wink and smile from someone across the room.

Ultimately, whether you believe that digital dating is equivalent to in-person dating probably depends mostly on your age and your comfort level with digital devices. Typically, younger people are much less concerned than their parents and grandparents about the blurring line between online and IRL realities. For them, the language, images, and interactions of the digital universe are just another facet of life, every bit as meaningful and intimate as in-person, face-to-face encounters. The fact that some older people can’t wrap their minds around this fact doesn’t make it any less true. And frankly, Gen X and Baby Boomer types are usually not quite as trapped in the Stone Age as some might think. Many, like Anne in the example above, have embraced digital dating as fervently as their kids and grandkids, with equally positive results.

Whether you are ready to embrace digital technology or not, online dating is here to stay. Yes, some commentators are concerned about the fact that today’s young people interact digitally more often than face-to-face, worrying that if and when these kids decide they want a real-world relationship they will lack the social skills needed to make that happen. However, it seems much more likely that they will successfully adapt to digital technology, incorporating it into their dating lives in healthy, life-affirming ways, just as older generations successfully and healthfully adapted to their forms of new technology (think sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll). In other words, the wheel, the automobile, telephones, and television were not the end of mankind as we know it, and digital dating won’t be either. As evolutionary history repeatedly tells us, the vast majority of people will find romantic partners, form pair bonds, build communities, and safely reproduce our species regardless of technology and the ever-evolving specifics of the human mating game.

Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. He has developed clinical programs for The Ranch outside Nashville, Tennessee, Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu, and The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles.An author and subject expert on the relationship between digital technology and human sexuality, Mr. Weiss has served as a media specialist for CNN, The Oprah Winfrey Network, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Today Show, among many others. He has also provided clinical multi-addiction training and behavioral health program development for the US military and treatment centers throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia.