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Tech in dating: decoding the social rules of text, online dating & social media

Let's face it: flirting, finding love and managing relationships have always been complicated, but with the involvement of countless forms of technology now impacting every little step of the way, the social rules of love and sex have only gotten more confusing. The role of tech in dating is a primary topic in psychotherapy sessions I conduct with young singles in the Bay Area of California- the world's hub and backbone of tech culture. Part of my role as their clinical psychologist is to help them decode and navigate the emerging social rules of text, online dating and social media to help them achieve fulfilling relationships. I recently spoke with Tech Crunch journalist Sara Buhr, who was investigating dating trends among people immersed in the tech industry. Some of the questioned she asked of me were: How are the norms and expectations different? Are young men in tech less likely to follow traditional social rules of dating? How has the proclivity toward using dating websites changed the dating game? This article was born from that conversation, and aims to illuminate the challenges of social connection in the 21st century.

So what do we already know? If you want to communicate personally with anyone these days, you’ve got to text them. Casual, easy and non-threatening, text messaging is upending today's dating culture. The cellphone is the gateway: swiftly and radically changing the way people interact, meet and move forward (or not) in a relationship. According to a report released in 2013 by Nielsen based on actual phone bills of mobile contract subscribers, about 764 text messages per person were sent/received each month in the USA in 2012, compared with about 165 mobile calls per month. A new survey of 1,500 daters provided to USA TODAY reveals how deeply mobile technology has rocked the dating world. The daters, ages 21 to 50, give even greater insight into mobile behaviors and a new range of dating questions: Do you check your phone during a date? How soon must you reply to a text? Should a friend call or text you to see how the date is going?

Among the findings:

•Approximately one-third of men (31%) and women (33%) agree it's less intimidating to ask for a date via text vs. a phone call.

•More men (44%) than women (37%) say mobile devices make it easier to flirt and get acquainted.

"Texting is kind of an ongoing conversation. It does make it easier to flirt. Maybe you're talking every day," says Alex Pulda, 27, who works in product research in San Francisco. "It's not like text conveys a ton of emotion, but you are getting a little more comfortable with each other." Pulda says he texts for everything, including dates. "I don't love phone calls," he says. "They have all the downsides and don't have the benefit of face-to-face communication. It's kind of this in-between. And part of it is, it's a lot more work than a text."

Millennials' love of texting is rubbing off on other generations, suggests Naomi Baron, a linguistics professor at American University in Washington who has studied electronically mediated communication in five nations, including the USA. She says telephone calls are often thought of as an intrusion, while texting affords a way of "controlling the volume," a term she uses to describe the sense of control that text gives users that they can't get with a voice conversation. "We tell ourselves we don't want to disturb someone. Sometimes it's true, but more often, it's because we can't get them off the phone," she says. In texting, "we don't have to talk to people or listen to what another person has to say. We decide how we want to encounter or whether we want to encounter other people. Technology gives us tools for controlling our relationships." In the modern world of dating, it's becoming increasingly difficult to know how our electronic messages are being perceived and paced by others.

It's not uncommon (and quite the norm) for my patients to save texts, tweets, status updates and Gchats to discuss and analyze during our psychotherapy sessions. These digital exchanges are often at the root of their increased anxiety and worry, social tension, and depressive symptoms such as decreased concentration and irritability at work and other important areas of functioning. Life coach Debra Smouse explains "when a response [from others] doesn't come, we begin to worry. When we don't hear back, our minds start to spiral, creating crazy scenarios and we begin to believe that something is wrong. We know logically that a friend may have left his or her desk or a colleague may be on a call, but when we're on the other end and stress hits, an unanswered chat box is discomforting, and logic goes out the window." [Technologies like Gchat] "make us think that because the technology is 'instant' and free, people should respond instantly -- and there's something wrong when they don't," adds Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of "The Distraction Addiction."

It's not just the frequency and pace of our electronic messages that are difficult to decipher. The content of these exchanges can also be equally confusing in the context of modern dating (a.k.a 'hanging out'), getting to know each other, (a.k.a 'internet stalking') and sex (a.k.a 'hooking up'.) Ambiguous, common messages like "what're you up tonight, anything fun going on?", "I'm out drinking with some friends if you're around", and "hey" are all commonplace in the current dating marketplace, can make it difficult for people to gain traction towards building a committed relationship. The normalization and proclivity toward using dating websites in recent years contributes to a pattern of non-comittal social ties. Mobile apps like Tinder, okcupid and plenty of fish supply people with a never-ending source of new social opportunities. The problem is that “young people today don’t know how to get out of hookup culture” Donna Freitas explains, author of the forthcoming book, “The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy.” "Dodging vulnerability cheats us of the chance to not just create intimacy but also to make relationships work"states Brené Brown, a University of Houston researcher whose work focuses on the need for vulnerability and what happens when we desensitize ourselves to it.

In this light, people can utilize psychotherapy as a way to build social skills to help them find, evolve and navigate romantic relationships. Dean, a Millennial who writes about her generation (generally born 1982 to 2000) says, "We really see this generation as having a huge handicap in communication. We have our heads down in our smartphones a lot. We don't know how to express our emotions, and we tend to hide behind technology, computers and social media." she says. With diminished opportunity for healthy social relationships, this generation is at increased risk for anxiety, depression and isolation.

As a mental health professional, I help people identify the relationship between their thoughts, feelings and behaviors that are leading them to feel 'stuck' in unfulfilling social patterns. It's a slow process- teaching pacing and managing expectations are key to lasting progress. Participating in psychotherapy can help people increase their ability to establish and maintain fulfilling relationships. With these relationships come the superior health benefits of physical contact and emotional intimacy, love, trust and not-so-cyber sex.

Dr. Christina Villarreal is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Bay Area, CA with offices in Oakland and San Francisco. For professional inquiries, she may be contacted at christina.villarreal@gmail.com or visit her website at www.drchristinavillarreal.com