When I was in college, I arrived early to class one day to see my friend Emily sitting on the floor, back against the wall, and utterly engrossed in her phone. She was deeply focused as her thumbs texted what could have been a dissertation. Once she was done, she looked up and said “hi.”
I commented on how intensely she was typing.
She let out a small, embarrassed laugh. “Just texting this guy I’ve been talking to.”
“That’s cool,” I said.
“Yeah, we’ve been texting for three weeks so…it’s getting pretty serious.”
Emily didn’t. Instead, she looked at me, confused as to why I was laughing.
“Wait, you weren’t joking?”
“About what?” she asked.
“About three weeks of texting being a serious relationship.”
She looked at me like I was an idiot. “You sound so old right now.”
I was 29 at the time. Emily had just turned 20. I wasn’t that old.
Still, I was lost. Was three weeks of texting the new benchmark of a serious relationship? Was I so out of touch and out of practice that this was the new norm and I just didn’t get the memo?
As I’ve gotten older and seen more and newer technology emerge, I’ve come to the conclusion that, while we have the most access to other people we’ve ever had, we’re forming fewer actual human connections.
Think about it. How many people do you call just to chat and see how they’re doing? How many people do you meet up with in person just have a conversation over lunch or a cup of coffee?
I’m betting that’s a short list…if there’s a list at all.
Before the advent of smart phones, I remember calling friends just to talk.
Remember how excited we all were when three-way-calling became widely available and we could talk to two friends at once?
Now, that sounds like a chore. Who wants to talk to another person? What, with all their words and feelings? What kind of monster wants you to listen to them as they speak to you in real time?
The hell with that. Send a text or meme and get on with your day, you know, like a sane person.
One of the areas in which technology connects us while simultaneously making it difficult to form real connections is the world of online dating.
It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when people were embarrassed to admit they met their significant other online. It was seen as an act of desperation, a last resort to find love.
In the last decade or so, that has drastically changed. Dating apps are so commonplace, many people have profiles on multiple apps at once. Moreover, there are apps that cater to niche dating markets.
Looking for librarians who like coffee and sitting in easy chairs while wrapped in several blankets? There’s an app specifically for that.
In a world in which we’re all so busy that most of us are working ourselves into early graves, dating apps make meeting people easy, convenient, and speed up the get-to-know-you process.
We get a few pictures and blurb in which someone has attempted to sum up the entirety of who they are in a paragraph. Maybe the app’s logarithm also provides a compatibility score (the accuracy of which is highly dubious).
This is all of the initial information we have to go on before we click “connect” or swipe in whichever direction that signifies we may be interested in that person.
And it all seems so…impersonal.
It’s uncomfortably similar to ordering stuff from Amazon.
Likewise, the disconnection provided by a dating app makes it much easier to “ghost” someone.
If you’re unfamiliar with the term, “ghosting” is when you establish communication with someone then stop without warning or explanation. It’s an awful thing to do to someone because they have no idea why you’ve suddenly disappeared from their life. As someone who has been ghosted, I just assumed I did or said something wrong. Why else would they just halt communications?
One of the pitfalls of online dating is it’s too easy to forget that the profiles we look at and discard without a moment’s thought are representations of actual human beings. Who cares about that? We’re eager to search though our match results or just skip to the part where were begin to message back and forth.* I initially typed “communicate” here, but it seems inaccurate given what often actually happens.
What I mean by that is, when you speak with someone face-to-face, you don’t just hear what they say, you hear their tone of voice and the inflection with which they speak. You see their body language. You can observe how comfortable they are, whether they’re being sarcastic or genuine, and if they found that questionable joke you made funny, or if they’re just politely chuckling so you’re not embarrassed (…please tell me I’m not alone here).
When you text or message someone via an app, you’re not interacting with them on a human level. You don’t get their body language and tone, which we’re genetically programmed to pick up on, no matter ho overt or subtle. Sure, they’re sending you words and emojis and whatever else. However, what you’re actually interacting with is your device.
What you’re connecting with and forming an attachment to is your phone or your computer.
Despite an actual person being on the other end of the conversation, by interfacing with a device while engaging in courtship behaviors, you’re attachment subconsciously transfers from that person to your device because it’s your device you’re looking at, engaging with, and deriving pleasure from. The person on the other end is secondary to that.
This connection to our devices, specifically to our phones, damages our ability to connect with other human beings in what I’ve heard referred to as “meat space.” In other words, the real world in which we physically exist with our meaty bodies.
Ok, maybe I crowbarred the term “meat space” in here, but I did so because it always makes me chuckle. Sue me.
Dr. Susan Krauss Whitborne writes that we become attached to our phones much like we do with a transitional item such as a teddy bear. We grow so attached to our phones that we become stressed and anxious when we’re separated from them. This attachment begins to supersede our other relationships. Dr. Whitbourne further states, “If you’ve become unable to get through your day without holding your phone and frequently checking your social networks, it may be time to question whether you can find fulfillment in your connections with others in a real rather than virtual space.”
But why? What is it about our phones that enrapture us so, especially when it comes to dating?
Professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University, Jacob J. Hamman theorizes, “When we hold our phones, it reminds us of moments of intimacy — whether from our childhood or from our adult life. The brain chemical dopamine and love hormone oxytocin, which play a role in the addiction ‘high,’ kick in. These chemicals also create a sense of belonging and attachment.”
Biologically speaking, the sense of belonging and attachment Professor Hamman mentions is meant to bond us with other people. After all, human beings are highly social animals. It’s why we naturally seek each other’s company and companionship. It’s why we form communities. It’s why we don’t do well when isolated.
The introduction of the smartphone began a progression in which we’ve began transferring that attachment from other humans to an electronic device.
Sure, we’re connected to each other via text, email, and social media, but are we forming genuine human connections?
I would argue that, no, we’re not.
In my friend Emily’s case, her “serious relationship” with the guy she’d been texting was, in all likelihood, a serious relationship with her phone. In fact, when I asked her how her relationship was going, she complained that things didn’t feel the same when they’d hung out in person. She reported a sense of awkwardness and discomfort.
Their “serious relationship” ended shortly afterward.
In my own experience in using dating apps, I’ve found I rely heavily on the app’s matching algorithm.
Oh, I have a 96% match with this person. That’s good right?
Then I read through their profile to find we have little in common. She hates movies, thinks video games and comic books are for kids, can’t stand pets, and enjoys running 100 mile ultra-marathons.
How the shit did we get a 96% match?
The algorithm decided we were a good fit. Based on what, I have no idea. However, it’s not my place to question the algorithm
In the algorithm we trust. In the algorithm we find happiness. In the algorithm we find meaning.
Remember when we used to find those things in each other?
Don’t get me wrong. Online dating isn’t inherently negative or unhealthy. For many of us, it’s the best way to meet people given our busy lives. Moreover, I’ve known people who have found their soulmates through dating apps.
However, they seem the exception, not the rule.
Most of us are still slogging through a virtual briar patch of profiles and bewildering match results. We’re still looking for that deep connection we read about in books, hear about in love songs, and see in movies.
And the great irony is that we’re looking for that human connection through the electronic devices that have caused us to grow more alone and isolated than we’ve even been.
My unsolicited advice is this. Put down you phone. Have a real conversation in person with someone. It doesn’t have to be a date. Talk with a friend. A family member. An acquaintance.
You may be pleasantly surprised.
 Whitbourne, Susan Krauss, PhD. “This is Why We Can’t Put Down Our Phones.” Psychology Today (psychologytoday.com). Sept. 17, 2016. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201609/is-why-we-cant-put-down-our-phones Apr. 8, 2021
 Hamman, Jacob J. “3 Reasons Why We Are Addicted to Smartphones.” The Conversation (theconversation.com) in partnership with Vanderbilt University. Nov. 2, 2017. https://theconversation.com/3-reasons-why-we-are-addicted-to-smartphones-4041#:~:text=When%20we%20hold%20our%20phones,sense%20of%20belonging%20and%20attachment. Apr. 8, 2021)