Love, Digital Style: The New Generation Gap

Researchers have already begun to observe clear differences in the ways digital natives and digital immigrants gather information. And now we are beginning to see profound differences in how these two "generations" view flirting, dating, meeting, mating and romance.
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Digital native is a term that refers to people who grew up interacting with computers and the Internet, a group that primarily consists of men and women age 30 and younger. And digital immigrants... well, that is the rest of us older folk. And while it is true that many of us over the age of 30 are every bit as fluent in the digital universe as those born post-1982, there nevertheless exists a profound technological separation between digital natives and immigrants -- a new generation gap, if you will. This undeniable fact is becoming apparent in virtually every facet of modern life. Researchers have already begun to observe clear differences in the ways digital natives and immigrants handle business, news and information gathering, shopping, recreation, reading, education, and career building. More importantly for the human race, we are beginning to see profound differences in how these two "generations" view flirting, dating, meeting, mating, and romance.

On first glance, this sounds a lot like every other generation gap in history. And just as the parents of the "Boomer" generation worried that sex, drugs, and rock and roll would destroy their children's lives, so too do parents today express concern over their children's Internet access, lack of manners (texting at the dinner table, etc.), and values regarding everything from personal privacy and creative property rights to dating, relationships, and sex. And though every older generation has had to confront the changes brought about by every younger generation, today we are clearly experiencing a deeper, more meaningful, and possibly hardwired shift in the ways younger people think about, engage in, and build intimate relationships.

Young People Communicate Differently

There is little doubt the growing chasm between digital natives and immigrants centers on the use of technology for purposes of interpersonal connection. In 2009, a study conducted by the Pew Research Center indicated that more than half of American teens logged onto a social media website more than once per day, with nearly a quarter of teens logging on 10 or more times per day. And that was in 2009, the beginning of the social media boom! A more recent Pew study shows the median number of daily texts among teens aged 12 to 17 has risen from 50 texts per day in 2009 to 60 texts per day today, with girls aged 14 to 17 the most avid texters, averaging more than 100 per day. This same survey also revealed 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. The appeal of texting appears to be the ability to be "in touch" without directly engaging another person. In this way teens are able to "control" their social interactions.

The New Man

In his recent TED Talk turned e-book, The Demise of Guys, Philip G. Zimbardo speaks and writes about the "technology enchantment" adversely affecting young men in today's America. "From the earliest ages, guys are seduced into excessive and mostly isolated viewing and involvement with texting, tweeting, blogging, online chatting, emailing and watching sports on TV or laptops. Most of all, though, they're burying themselves in video games and in getting off on all-pervasive online pornography."

Porn, in particular, seems to be an issue for young men in terms of developing healthy romantic and sexual partnerships. Most Internet porn has no storyline, no emotional connection, and no buildup to the sexual performance. There is no talking, no seducing, no romancing, no tenderness. Usually there is no kissing or foreplay. All that's there is an ever-changing stream of body parts and sexual acts. Zimbardo believes that because of this, boys' brains are being interactively rewired to demand high levels of stimulation, novelty, excitement, and arousal. As a result, many young men report feeling out of sync with real-world romance, which tends to build gradually through a mix of face-to-face and digital interactions that together provide ongoing opportunities for sharing and developing trust.

Not only are young men not "in sync" with their potential partners, they may actually be losing interest in those partners! Numerous studies show that a consistent pattern of porn use can result in both short- and long-term sexual and intimacy dysfunction. In fact, a rapidly growing percentage of digital natives report literally being disinterested, even turned off by "in the flesh" sex. According to pair of 1,500-person studies (related to slowing population growth) authorized by Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, the number of teen and young adult males who have no interest or an outright aversion to having sex with another person approximately doubled from 2008 to 2010, rising from 17.5 percent to 36.1 percent in males aged 16-19, and 11.8 percent to 21.5 percent among males aged 20-24. This growing lack of interest in real-world sex coincides with the relatively recent (and ongoing) "sexnology explosion" that has made online pornography and virtual sexual encounters not only more accessible and affordable, but also more erotic and enticing. It seems, with a lot of young men, that real-life partners are losing the battle with virtual partners.

Needless to say, young men are less excited than their predecessors about "normal" sexual behavior, not to mention traditional intimacy and responsibilities. As Zimbardo writes, "These guys aren't interested in maintaining long-term romantic relationships, marriage, fatherhood and being the head of their own family. Many have come to prefer the company of men over women, and they live to escape the so-called real world and readily slip into alternative worlds for stimulation. More and more they're living in other worlds that exclude girls -- or any direct social interaction, for that matter."

The New Woman

It's not just young men who are changing. The digital divide exists for women, as well. One potentially illuminating measure is porn use. Studies show that younger females (digital natives) are more likely to use porn than their elders. They are also more likely to be "accepting" of porn use. Of interest in this area is the fact that porn acceptance by women (even more so than actual porn use) positively correlates with a desire for later marriage, at a time when both partners in the marriage are financially independent. And this desire appears to be more than just a hope. The simple fact is female digital natives are more likely than their male counterparts to have a college degree, and, in aggregate, they make more money. For these young women, the ability to delay marriage -- substituting less serious, shorter term sexual and romantic relationships (such as masturbating to online porn, having casual "hookup" sex, etc.) that don't interfere with school and/or career -- is a key element of this newfound success. As Hanna Rosin, author of The End of Men: And the Rise of Women, writes in the Atlantic:

To put it crudely, feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of the hookup culture. And to a surprising degree, it is women -- not men -- who are perpetuating the culture, especially in school, cannily manipulating it to make space for their success, always keeping their own ends in mind. For college girls these days, an overly serious suitor fills the same role an accidental pregnancy did in the 19th century: a danger to be avoided at all costs, lest it get in the way of a promising future.

Although research about young people's attitudes toward casual sex might lead us to believe that kids today are having much more sex than their parents were at the same age, that is not the case. In reality, most research shows the number of young people having sex is actually dropping. What may bother some members of older generations is the "lack of meaning" that young people, particularly young women, attribute to much of their sexual behavior. For older generations, sex was thought of as the glue that brought together and held together long-term relationships. They struggle to understand how digital natives can so easily view sex as an activity devoid of intimate connection.

Is Marriage Passé?

For better or worse, society no longer holds marriage in the high esteem it once did. In fact, a study by the Pew Research Center shows 44 percent of Gen Y (digital natives) and 43 percent of Gen X (the youngest digital immigrants) view marriage as "archaic." The survey also found that in 2008 only 26 percent of men and women in their twenties were married, compared to 68 percent in 1960. Among all adults in 1960, 72 percent were married, as compared to 52 percent in 2008. So clearly marriage is no longer the be-all, end-all it once was.

These days, monogamous relationships are looked at by digital natives in terms of what you lose rather than what you gain. Monogamy is viewed by some as a restriction on personal freedoms, including the freedom to do what you want, when you want, via the Internet. What we are finding is many digital natives would rather live in an online sexual wonderland than settle down into the traditional, long-term monogamous relationships favored by their parents and generations before. Many of these young people are choosing to eschew real-world, long-term intimacy, preferring instead a world of virtual sex and casual in-person hookups -- temporary "relationships" that present them with fewer emotional challenges, fewer entanglements, and a greater sense of control.

That said, no matter how real or enticing the technology, most psychologically healthy people eventually come to find virtual sex and casual hookups two-dimensional and unfulfilling. They become bored with those options and, at some point, they opt for longer-term, more intimate emotional connections. However, as sexnology proliferates and improves, our expectations of long-term sexual partners are also evolving, and committed monogamous relationships may not be keeping pace. After all, it is human nature to seek and/or create more refined pleasures (refined cocaine, refined sugar, refined gaming and gambling via the Internet, etc.), and if the most pleasurable sexual and romantic experiences are fleeting, ever-changing, and involve a computer or smartphone rather than an actual human being, then so be it. Needless to say, the next few tech-decades are going to be an interesting ride.

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. Mr. Weiss is a clinical psychotherapist and educator. He has provided sexual addiction treatment training internationally for psychology professionals, addiction treatment centers, and the U.S. 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 on Twitter at @RobWeissMSW.

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