In this hi-tech and sometimes frenetic world, many people are lonely, longing for meaningful connections with others.
Dating was always a way of overcoming loneliness by facilitating meetings and relationships. We all recall our own dating experiences, which we either enjoyed (warm or amorous) or endured (uncomfortable or embarrassing). But that venerable ‘pas de deux’ ritual has changed dramatically over the past two decades.
While people still engage in traditional dating, the new dominant norm is Online Dating (Cyber-courting), which provides (or promises) innumerable opportunities to meet desired and desirable partners.
There are now millions of online daters worldwide ranging in age between eighteen (or less) and eighty (or more). They comprise adolescents and young adults, middle-aged and elderly, widows and widowers, never-married and divorcees.
We know that communication-by-computer is no substitute for face-to-face conversations. Nuances and meanings, even facial expressions via Skype, are often “lost in translation.” While the internet has facilitated business transactions, it has diminished meaningful discussions and “I-Thou” relationships. Nowadays, one might chat online with the “entire world,” yet have few intimate bonds.
Dating, once a fairly straightforward experience, has become something akin to sailing an unwieldy boat in uncharted rough waters. While positive anticipation and excitement are still experienced, there are now more unknown scenarios, sometimes fraught with warnings and fears.
There is a degree of vulnerability and loneliness which underlies much of online dating. It attracts people with varied motivations to widely diverse sites, all seeking to fulfill their urges, dreams or hopes. The sites can focus on romance, sexual encounters ("hook-ups"), platonic companionship, intimate partnerships, marriage, serious discussions, unusual fetishes, gender-specificities, long-term relationships with or without monogamy, and specific age, ethnic and racial preferences. (Examples include Tinder, Match, Bumble, Zoosk, Elite Singles, eHarmony, Black People Meet, J-Date, Asia Meets, Single Parent).
Some decry online dating because of the inherent anonymity of the internet. They cite contributions to immorality, or reports of harm perpetrated by putative partners. While these may occur, they are thankfully a miniscule proportion of the immense numbers who utilize these sites.
Risks are not confined to online dating: There are dangers of exploitation in traditional dating as well. Meeting at a bar under the influence of alcohol is not exactly a reliable screening tool!
What is salient for all participants is caution and vigilance. Preliminary steps should involve familiarization with the dating site, including reputation, reliability and history, as well as with the dating “applicant.” Screening phone discussions provide answers to pertinent questions, and preliminary meetings serve purposes of attraction, comfort and safety.
People seeking to stop this trend are too late, as that train has already left the station: Sixty per cent of millennials used dating apps and sites in the last year, and more than a third of the weddings in this country are between people who met via the internet.
Similar trends prevail in many other countries. Future research will determine whether there are any substantive differences in the quality and longevity of these relationships compared to traditional dating.
Online dating does offer some advantages, the most persuasive being that so many recently married couples were introduced via the internet. Cyber-dating has also opened up the “pool” of participants, enabling people of diverse backgrounds and cultures to meet and match. It has facilitated those with social anxieties to meet people on line slowly and carefully, and it has fostered those with special interests to meet others with similar pursuits.
Internet screens can be both a salve and a scourge in our lives. Our tablets, computers, and especially our phones, are omnipresent and tantalizingly accessible, literally and figuratively at our fingertips. Look around you, most people have their phones out, like amulets or talismen. Or better yet, look in the mirror!
Dating is obviously a healthy and important social activity. Online daters need to be educated about strategies to ensure safety as well as enjoyment, and the internet’s myriad dating sites should be much better regulated. As long as daters and internet sites are responsible, dating will be enjoyable and enhancing to the vast majority of participants.
Cyber dating will no doubt continue to expand and thrive, as will the use of the internet for other social purposes. Increasing loneliness with attendant sadness and alienation will also challenge many people.
Long term relationships are both a powerful antidote to loneliness and they contribute immensely to one’s quality of life and personal fulfillment.
The ultimate irony may be that the internet, which has indeed contributed to “techno-loneliness,” is now being utilized in online dating as its remedy.
* The author thanks Ms. HannaMei Levine for her help and wisdom in writing this column.