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Science and technology Updated: 22 Aug 2017

Phone romance

Love and sex in the era of social networks and mobile communications.

couple bbva Mobile phone addiction

Boy meets girl. They grow up and fall in love. But technology intervenes and threatens to destroy their happy union forever. The destructive potential of communication technologies is the premise of the romantic novel self-published by Stephanie Jones, entitled Dreams and Misunderstandings. Two childhood sweethearts, Rick and Jessie, use text messages, phone calls and e-mails to bridge the distance between them when Jessie goes off to university on the east coast of the United States and Rick moves between the United Kingdom and the west coast of America. A little before their summer reunion, their technology link breaks down when Jessie is hospitalized after a traumatic attack. During her recovery, she loses access to her cellphone, computer and e-mail account. As a result, the lovers fail to meet up and spend years apart, each convinced the other has abandoned them.

Jones blames digital innovations for the misunderstandings that prevent Rick and Jessie from being reunited. It's hardly surprising that this issue has been made the subject of a romantic novel: it reflects a more widespread cultural fear that these technologies prevent – rather than reinforce – human connection. One of the earliest promoters of the Internet, Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the U.S., makes similar claims in her latest book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More of Technology and Less from Each Other. She maintains that, despite of their potential, communications technologies are threatening our human relationships, and particularly our most intimate ones, as they offer "substitutes for connecting with each other face to face".

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Even if technology doesn't undermine or damage our existing relationships, there are certainly numerous stories about how it creates false or destructive relationships between young people who send each other sexually explicit photos from their cellphones, and lure gullible people into online relationships using invented personalities. In her recent book on the culture of spontaneous encounters,  The End of Sex Donna Freitas blames mobile technologies for the ease with which these encounters can occur.

Technologies reshape love

There's no doubt that communications technologies have been transforming love, romance and sex all through the decade of the 2000s. Internet, according to sociologists Michael Rosenfeld and Reuben Thomas, is now the third most common way of finding a partner, after meeting through friends and in bars, restaurants and other public spaces. 22 percent of heterosexual couples now meet online. In many ways, Internet has replaced families, churches, schools, neighborhoods, citizens' associations and the workplace as places to find romance. It has become particularly important for people who have a 'narrow market' for potential romantic partners such as for example middle-aged heterosexuals, gays and lesbians of all ages, older people, and people who are geographically isolated. But even for people who are not isolated from current or potential partners, cellphones, social networking sites and other similar forms of communication often play a key role in shaping, maintaining and dissolving intimate relationships.

Although these advances are significant, the fears about what they mean do not accurately reveal the complexity of how the technology is actually being used. This is hardly surprising: concerns about how technology threatens the social order – particularly with regard to sexuality and intimacy – go back way beyond Internet dating and cellphones. From the railway carriage (detractors feared it could convey people of loose moral character from one city to another) to the automobile (which provided young people with a private space to engage in sexual activity), and including reproductive technologies such as in vitro fertilization, technical innovations that affect our intimate lives have always provoked anxiety. And these fears have led to what sociologists call 'moral panic#39;, an episode of public anxiety caused by an exaggerated perception of the threat to the social order.

Moral panic is an appropriate description of the fears expressed by Jones, Turkle and Freitas about the role of technology in affairs of the heart. Instead of separating people, technology-mediated communication most probably has a "hyperpersonal effect", according to communications professor Joseph Walther. In other words, it allows people a greater degree of shared intimacy, sometimes more intimate than would be sustainable face-to-face. "John", a first-year university student from Chicago I interviewed for some research I published in a book in 2009 entitled Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media, highlights this paradox. He asks me: "What happens after you've had a great online flirtatious chat... and then the conversation sucks in person?".

How do people interact?

In the first stage of getting to know each other in a relationship, the asynchronous nature of written communication, text messages, e-mails and messages or comments on social networking or dating sites – as opposed to telephone calls or video chats – allows people to interact in a more continuous way and gives them an escape hatch in potentially vulnerable situations. When people meet up and get to know each other this way, they can plan, edit and study their flirtatious messages before sending them. As John says about this type of communication, "I can think about things more. You can deliberate and answer whatever you want".

When couples move on to committed relationships, they use these communications technologies to maintain a type of digital cohabitation, regardless of physical distance. With technologies like cellphones and social networking sites, couples never have to be separated. This often strengthens the relationships between the partners: in a study on the use of technology in romantic relationships, Borae Jin and Jorge Peña found that couples who keep in close touch by cellphone show less uncertainty about their relationships and greater levels of commitment. This type of communication becomes something like "working on the relationship", and the couple exchange digital tokens of affection such as text messages or comments on online photos. "Champ", a young 19 year old man in New York, said to one of my collaborators in Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out that in his relationship with his girlfriend "you probably send a little text message, 'Oh I'm thinking of you', ”, or something like that while she's working... You probably send little comments three times a day".

There's no doubt that some of the current fears are based on the perfectly accurate observation of the fact that communications technologies do not always encourage constructive relationship work. The public nature of Facebook messages, for example, appears to provoke jealousy and to decrease intimacy. When the anthropologist Ilana Gershon interviewed university students on their romantic life, several indicated that Facebook jeopardizes their relationships. As "Cole", one of the interviewees, said, "There's a lot of drama. It adds to the stress".

But in general, the research by Gershon and other experts indicates that people often have a common understanding of how and when they should use technology in their romantic relationships. In fact, this is largely due to the fact that people use social networks primarily to express connection, and they don't like to use them to end a relationship. Only 25% of social network users said they would use the technology to deal with serious issues with their partners, and a very small number said they would end their relationship in that way. When Gershonasked the university students to describe a 'bad' breakup, they immediately brought up any carried out via the social networks. In  Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out"Grady",a 16-year-old secondary student, said that breaking up by text message or social networks was particularly "disrespectful", because "you can't respond or say anything".

Given the sensitive understanding people have of the role played by technology in their relationships, the idea that the new communications media are a dehumanizing force is somewhat overblown. What the research tells us is that technology can neither create nor destroy relationships. But there is no doubt that technology has changed relationships. It may make it easier to develop emotional intimacy. It may smooth sexual relationships with strangers. It may also increase the risk of deception among people who are in intimate relationships. All this can place an additional burden on relationships, and require couples to work on their relationships both inside and outside Internet. If Rick and Jessie had been able to resolve these difficulties, they might not have spent so many years apart.