Walker Essay

Kristen Walker

A New Dimension of Dating

Introduction
Digital technology has revolutionized the ways in which Americans communicate. With the advent of personal computers, the Internet and cell phones, near constant communication is possible. Cell phones in particular allow individuals to be reached at all hours of the day and night because they are viewed as essentially an extension of a person’s physical self and are always close at hand. To facilitate contact when a phone call is inappropriate, text messaging was created, and over roughly the past five years the texting boom has surged. Americans of all ages, but primarily adolescents and young adults, are using text messaging as a means of managing their social relationships by initiating, maintaining and ending affiliations. While text messaging affects all aspects of relationships, it has arguably the greatest impact on Americans’ perception of dating relationships. Compared to previous generations, dating in America today requires a significantly higher level of communication than ever before. Varying opinions on the matter suggest that this may help strengthen relationships or conversely cause additional problems due to the invasion of privacy. The surge in text messaging, whether positive or negative, has changed the dynamics of dating relationships from previous generations and added a new component to dating that is virtually inescapable in American society, proving that cell phone technology is managing people’s concept of what constitutes a relationship.

A New Dimension of Dating
In a study by members of the Department of Telecommunications at Indiana University, the authors write that “socially interactive technologies (SITs), such as instant messaging and text messaging, are beginning to redefine the social networks of today's youth” (Text Messaging, and Adolescent Social Networks ). Dating relationships are among the social networks most affected by text messaging for many reasons, but most simply because people desire a high level of communication with a romantic interest or significant other, and texting facilitates such frequent contact.

In an interview with Rachel East, a senior at Virginia Tech, she said, “Texting has become a separate stage of dating. You can say, ‘We’re texting,’ and that’s understood as a phase of the dating process.” When asked on average how many texts she and her boyfriend exchange a day, she estimated between 40 and 50. “But when we were just getting to know each other and lived in different towns it was probably twice that a day,” she added. While this may seem an excessive number, it might not be too far off the mark. In a New York Times article published on May 25, 2009, author Katie Hafner writes, “American teenagers sent and received an average of 2,272 text messages per month in the fourth quarter of 2008, according to the Nielsen Company — almost 80 messages a day” (“Texting May Be Taking a Toll” ). There is no way to determine how many of these daily texts are sent to and received from partners in any stage of the dating process, but I believe it is safe to assume that at least some percentage is, if not the majority. These averages will only continue to increase as mobile phone carriers make it cheaper and easier to add unlimited text messaging to phone plans.

Curious to see how my personal texting habits compare to the national average, I counted the total number of texts I exchanged with my boyfriend over the past six days, and the average was between 20 and 30. Kathleen Olson, another senior at Virginia Tech who considers herself to be in the “texting stage” of her current dating relationship, reported that she exchanges the same range of 20 to 30 texts per day. While these averages may not be a statistically accurate representative of young adults nationwide, they do help to provide a basis for determining the role of text messaging in dating relationships.

Although text messaging began as a mere option for communication, it has become in most cases a requirement to stay connected with a dating partner. Now that the ability to communicate multiple times a day through texting is available, it is both expected and necessary to fulfill society’s changing definition of what can be considered dating. The sheer existence of text messaging technology is managing young adults’ concepts of social relationships and causing them to think about dating relationships in a new way that previous generations never considered.

A Step Backward
In contrast to today’s young adults, their parents’ generation did not have access to constant and immediate forms of communication, so the amount of contact throughout their dating relationships was significantly less. As a point of reference, I interviewed my mother, Cammie Walker (age 50), to get an estimate of how often her and my father communicated while they were dating in college. She acknowledged that they saw each other almost every day while at school, but when they traveled home over breaks there was a drastic decrease in contact. “We would talk on the phone maybe twice a week. Not every day. It was a land line and you had to pay for every minute because it was long distance. … We wrote letters about once a week,” she said. My father, Bill Walker (age 50), also commented on the amount of time they could spend on the phone with each other when apart. “You couldn’t just talk endlessly. You had to really like a person a whole lot more when you had to pay to talk to them long distance,” he joked. Brief interviews with two other parents of Virginia Tech students (Jennifer East and Debbie Olson) confirmed that when they did not live near their college boyfriends, they also would have short phone conversations a couple times a week and occasionally exchange letters. They went on to comment that this was fairly standard for relationships of their age group at the time. “Now that I look back,” said Cammie, laughing, “your Dad and I lived in the Dark Ages.”

Because of text messaging technology, distance is no longer an impeding factor to communication. It is absurd for many young adults to consider going days without contact from their dating partner. While riding the bus home from campus last week, I watched a girl look at her phone, then complain to her friend, “It’s been over an hour and he still hasn’t texted me back.” It is impossible to know what exactly her situation was, but it is increasingly common to hear such frustrated complaints from young adults when they do not receive instant text responses. The standards for expected levels of communication have skyrocketed in comparison with previous generations due in large part to cell phones and text messaging.

The Verdict
Individual opinions differ drastically regarding whether the increase in communication due to text messaging technology is beneficial or harmful for dating relationships. Many who believe text messaging helps strengthen relationships feel that it opens the lines of communication, which allows couples to grow and learn about each other in a shorter span of time. “The more open we are with each other and the more we know about each other, the easier it would seem to have a relationship,” said Rachel East. Cammie Walker echoed many of the same thoughts. “You guys can practically follow each other through your days. I think it probably enhances the relationship a lot. You know far more detail about the person’s lifestyle because you get to communicate as often as you want,” she said. “It might actually advance the relationship because you’re able to learn so much about the person in a short amount of time.”

Not everyone is so pleased with the effects of text messaging technology on dating relationships, however. “It’s definitely changing the dynamic of relationships, but not in a good way because relationships are more stable when you see each other instead of relying on texting,” said Jessica Gallegos, a senior at Virginia Tech. Her boyfriend of over three years, Matt Gagnon (a fifth-year senior also at Tech), responded similarly in a separate interview. “Texting allows you to constantly communicate, so they expect to know where you are at all times,” he said. When I asked if that is a good or bad thing for a relationship, he promptly answered, “A bad thing.”

Another potential downside to communicating so often through texts is the heightened possibility of misinterpreting messages. Unlike face-to-face contact, phone calls or even video messaging over the Internet, there is no way to convey tone or subtle meanings through written text. This may cause increased conflict between couples over simple misunderstandings as opposed to true disagreements or differences of opinion.

These views are not meant to be representative of opinions of Americans nationwide, but they do present many attitudes of those who are affected by the changes in dating culture due to texting. There may never be a consensus on whether the advancement of text messaging technology is a positive or negative development for current dating relationships, but it is clearly changing the ways in which young adults manage their relationships.

Texting as Knowledge Management
It is clear that text messaging has significantly increased the quantity of communication and changed the standards of dating, but it manages knowledge and behavior in other ways as well. The limited space available in which to type a text message restricts how many characters an individual can use when trying to convey a thought. Messages must be fairly short and to the point in order to fit into the designated space. For this reason, as well as for mere convenience, users often abbreviate words, causing the message to look more like a complex code than the English language. Other users, whether they use this hyphenated form of communication or not, must have inside knowledge of what these shortened words mean or risk not understanding the message. Mobile phone carriers (such as Verizon and AT&T) are also managers of knowledge in that they have digital records of all text messages sent and received between phones that use their service. Technology limits the amount of truly private communication that used to exist between dating partners.

For better or for worse, texting is here to stay. Today’s definition of dating requires a substantially greater amount of communication, regardless of physical distance, and that is unlikely to change in the near future with technology becoming increasingly more advanced and personal. In a comical and yet true statement, Matt Daniel, a junior at Virginia Tech, said, “There’s no escaping the significant other. They can always find you.”

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