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Has Online Dating Changed the Way We Love Each Other?

An anthropologist weighs in on how dating apps like Tinder and online dating sites change the way we love.

Helen Fisher:  People think that modern technology is somehow changing love. It’s not changing love. The basic brain system for romantic love evolved millions of years ago. It’s not going to change whether you meet somebody on Tinder, on Match.com or in the library or on the skating rink or in church. The brain doesn’t change. And the moment that you meet somebody in a coffeehouse, in a bar, on a park bench, wherever it is they ancient human brain clicks into action and we court the way we always have. We smile the way we always have. We flirt the way we always have. We listen the way we always have. We try to size up the person the way the brain has always been sizing people up. But modern technology is changing how we court. In fact, you know, I work with Match.com, the Internet dating site and I’m their chief scientific advisor. And they have an algorithm. There’s all kinds of algorithms out there. But these are not dating sites. These are introducing sites. Once you go out with the person and meet them wherever you’re going to meet them the ancient human brain clicks into action and you court the way we always have. But they are introducing sites and they’re algorithms are very useful.

I mean, you know, most of us have this love map of what we’re looking for and you’ve got to pair up somebody. You have to offer dates of the right age, the right proximity whether they’re five miles away or 50 miles away. The right background, the right educational level, some of the right interests. So dating sites can go so far, only so far, with their algorithms to give you the broad basics of what you’re looking for. That we can provide for you so that you spend less time, you know, kissing frogs.

The human brain works in a pretty specific way, and a lot of those ways haven’t changed over the years. Specifically, in the way humanity loves. While this may not the most romantic era of human history, the endorphin rush is the same as it was when Shakespeare was ushering in the most epic love story of all time. Biological anthropologist and author of The Anatomy of Love Helen Fisher assures us that nothing about the feelings or practices of love has been changed by online dating. People still flirt as they used to. Heart rates still pound when they meet. The biology is the same.


But the mechanisms of the meeting have changed. Fisher says that we should think of popular relationship sites not as dating websites, but as introduction websites. It’s a matter of making a match, and then letting the humans take it from there, going along the path that we always have. Fisher points out that to find love, you usually have to kiss a lot of frogs – online dating just lessens the amount of those unfavorable encounters - in theory anyway.

Dating algorithms and increased technology allow for online daters to do amazing things – assess their dates to see what they might be like, check out their core beliefs before it’s too late, and even check for past criminal activity.

Perhaps because the digital world allows us to know people so quickly, we find ourselves in an age of increased real-world paranoia. It’s easier to date online than it is to trust the flirting stranger in a coffee shop. The way most of our parents or grandparents met would probably creep younger generations out – it might all be "a little too intense."

Algorithms in online dating allow people to filter out their deal breakers, farewell the frogs, and get on with the falling in love part. While previous generations may grumble that the technology isn’t natural, or that it stops genuine meetings between couples, there is no denying that the algorithms have great value in helping people find the partner that's right for them.

Love is as messy and complicated and biological as it’s always been, we’re just doing the intros a little bit differently.

Helen Fisher's book is The Anatomy of Love.

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Unfiltered lessons of a female entrepreneur

Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think.

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Why ‘Christian nationalists’ are less likely to wear masks and social distance

In a recent study, researchers examined how Christian nationalism is affecting the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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  • A new study used survey data to examine the interplay between Christian nationalism and incautious behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The researchers defined Christian nationalism as "an ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity and culture."
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Two-thirds of parents say technology makes parenting harder

Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

Sex & Relationships
  • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
  • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

A mixed response to technology

children using desktop computer

Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

Screens, parents, and pandemics

Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

But are these concerns overblown?

As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

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