You’ve got mail: How online options affect our real-life relationships


The ’90s were just the beginning.


When Meg Ryan eagerly booted up her laptop to email her pen pal, online relationships were romantic and risky. Now, even off-line relationships have a digital side.


Technology allows us to connect despite distance. Physical proximity is no longer required, but it is no longer sufficient either. When we have limitless possibilities for convenient human contact, it is easier to overlook the people next to us. Off-line interaction is messier. People in real life don’t exist at our convenience. Reactions are harder to mask  and less controlled. Bravado is less easily maintained. If in doubt, contemplate the prospect of ending a relationship in person or over digital messaging. The tough conversations are unquestionably harder in person.


Digital aspects of relationships can also be affected by the toxic culture of the internet. Online interactions (i.e. Tinder and the comment section of any forum) are extreme and do not model appropriate pro-social behaviors. For example,  a young teenage boy who texts “URH” is mimicking Tinder culture, even though he is too young for Tinder, and talking to a female peer more boldly than he would in real life. This causes the teenage girl to similarly mimic raunchy dating apps and reply in a more adult tone than she would in real life. Such a relationship escalates more quickly than normal and in a way inappropriate for teenagers.


In fact, digital relationships do not accurately real life relationships in a myriad of ways. There are no dirty socks on the floor, no pressure to come up with dates and other activities, and no need to carve out time for each other. The couple does not become acquainted with each other but with the carefully doctored image each person projects. The risk in an online relationship is minimal– there are 200 more profiles to scan if this one doesn’t work out.


Despite the movie’s title, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks found love by living, not over email. Tom brought Meg daffodils when she was ill, and Meg watched Tom outgrow greed. While digital options can enhance or spark off-line relationships, too much screen romance erodes true love.


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