In today’s tech-driven world, young people (digital natives) are as likely to communicate in the digital universe as they are to communicate face-to-face. In fact, more likely. A Pew Internet & American Life study conducted in 2012 found that texting is now the primary mode of daily communication between teens and their friends and family, far surpassing phone calls, face-to-face interactions, and emailing.i So in some ways it’s only natural that teens and young adults do much of their flirting online, too. A recent University of Michigan survey of 3500 young adults (ages 18 to 24) confirms this idea, finding that for this age bracket texting and sexting are simply another way of getting to know potential romantic partners and possibly advancing a relationship.ii
Of course, older generations (digital immigrants) sometimes worry that all of this digital rather than in-person interaction may be ruining the ability of young people to connect in meaningful ways and develop lasting intimacy. Many feel that the increasing propensity of young people to conduct their romantic affairs online is fostering a sort of “faux intimacy” among couples. Dr. Dorree Lynn, a psychologist and the author of Sex for Grownups, is a proponent of this thinking. In a recent ABC News article she laments that it’s now “easier to hop into bed than have a relationship.” She believes that digital communication inevitably creates the sort of artificial affection mentioned above, and that it does not teach people how to create or develop lasting relationships. “It’s all a function of the fast-paced world we live in, where communication skills, genuine communication skills, which means face-to-face communication, are quickly going by the wayside.”iii
Echoing this sentiment, the popular (anonymously written) blog entitled “The Married Chick,” in response to research on the increasing propensity of women to say “I love you” via text message, states:
When I read about this study, I wasn’t surprised at all. But as a true romantic (not a hopeless one; a hopeful one!), I was saddened. Mainly because I know that digital communication is well on its way toward replacing genuine, heart-thumping, palm-sweating human love interaction. I can remember long phone calls with my high school boyfriend. I lived for nights when I’d stay up past midnight, chatting with him about everything under the sun, hanging onto his every word. My kids will probably live this experience via IMs and text messages, typed at about 200 wpm! What’s the heart-thumping, adrenaline-pumping pleasure in that? I can see setting up plans or sharing gossip via text, but saying “I love you?” It can’t possibly have the same impact when you’re reading it for the first time on your PDA (pun intended).iv
The Real Thing?
As discussed above, older folks sometimes worry that digital technology is ruining the ability younger people to connect in meaningful ways and to create lasting relationships. However, this does not appear to actually be the case. In fact, numerous studies demonstrate that communication via social networking sites, IMs, and texts can actually propel relationships forward, speeding up the “getting to know you” process by lowering inhibitions and allowing potential partners to be more genuine with each other, more quickly. A recent survey jointly conducted by and published in Shape and Men’s Fitness magazines is but one example. Eighty percent of the women surveyed said digital communication makes it easier to stay connected. Fifty-eight percent of men said digital flirting helps to advance a relationship. The study also found that texting is now the number one method for lovers to stay in touch, with men texting their intimate partners 39 percent more often than calling, and women texting 150 percent more often.v Other studies and surveys have produced similar findings. So it appears the ersatz intimacy feared by older generations may actually be the real thing – at least occasionally. In other words, the connections that men and women experience through digital interactions can be as real and meaningful as in-vivo flirting, particularly among young people.
Yes, older generations typically yearn for the type of intimate interaction they best understand, one that occurs face-to-face, but digital natives are likely consider a racy text message every bit as enticing as a knowing smile from someone in the room. Thus, the efficacy of a winking emoticon versus a real-world, in-the-flesh wink is a function of the sender and receiver’s age more than anything else. The younger you are, the more likely you are to respond positively to the digital communique. Neither is right, and neither is wrong. It is true that young people now flirt in different ways than their parents and grandparents once did, but that doesn’t mean they are flirting any less effectively or that the relationships they develop are any less meaningful.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is the author of three books on sexual addiction and an expert on the juxtaposition of human sexuality, intimacy, and technology. He is Founding Director of The Sexual Recovery Institute and Director of Intimacy and Sexual Disorders Services at The Ranch and Promises Treatment Centers. He also founded the Stimulants and Sexual Disorders Program at Promises, Malibu. Mr. Weiss is a clinical psychotherapist and educator. He has provided sexual addiction treatment training internationally for psychology professionals, addiction treatment centers, and the US military. A media expert for Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times, Mr. Weiss has been featured on CNN, The Today Show, Oprah, and ESPN among many others. Rob can also be found onFacebook at facebook.com/RobWeissMSW and Twitter at @RobWeissMSW.
i Teens, Smartphones, and Texting, Pew Internet & American Life Project, http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2012/Teens-and-smartphones/Summary-of-findings.aspx (May 19, 2012).
ii Michigan Study Says “Sexting” is the Modern-Day Way of Flirting, ClickOn Detroit, http://www.clickondetroit.com/news/news/Michigan-study-says-sexting-is-the-modern-day-way-of-flirting/-/4714498/15697310/-/8i9r2tz/-/ind (Jul 25, 2012).
iv The Married Chick, “I Love You” in the Digital Age, MSN, http://living.msn.com/love-relationships/the-married-chick-blog-post?post=dd46c0fd-4be1-4853-a181-c831abec5f69&_blg=3 (Aug 1, 2012).
vKi Mae Hussner, Facebook as Foreplay? Survey Says Social Media Leads to Sex Faster, ABC News, http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/facebook-foreplay-survey-social-media-leads-sex-faster/story?id=12767315#.UFj0iY1mRng (Jan 26, 2011).
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Last reviewed: 14 Mar 2013