Millennial monogamy: wrecked by the web?

In 1998, during the very first episode of HBO’s hit television show “Sex and the City,” Carrie Bradshaw opened with the declaration “Welcome to the age of un-innocence!” Her reference to Edith Wharton’s classic novel about love, scandal and infidelity, “The Age of Innocence”, made a clear statement about how much life and love had changed since the dawn of the 20th century. Since the iconic television show’s end, 21st century love and relationships have been further complicated by the explosion of internet culture and social media. If the 90s were “the age of un-innocence,” what age do we live in now?

Widespread internet access, the invention of the smartphone, YouTube, online pornography, social networking sites, dating apps, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Tinder have all added new complexities to navigate in romantic relationships. With all these new complications, our love lives and our approaches to relationships have changed, potentially without our noticing. However, the way we interact with our friends and followers on social media does have an effect on our romantic relationships. One thing that all these technological advances definitely do is let us know who else is out there. We are constantly scrolling through photos of exes, friends, acquaintances or even strangers on our news feeds. Knowing about and constantly interacting with all the potential romantic partners within our reach can make it difficult for us to stay fully committed to one person in an exclusive relationship.

All design by Jaquan Leonard.

Social psychologists have studied what determines individuals’ levels of commitment to their partners in what is known as the investment model. As College of Charleston professor of psychology Chelsea Reid explained, “one of the model’s key components is called ‘perceptions of alternatives.’ Which means, when you think you have a lot of other options outside of your current relationship whether it’s other romantic partners, or even something like I’d rather spend time with my friends, or on my career- the less committed you may be.”  In an age where even facts can have alternatives, how can we expect to block out all our other options and stay fully committed to just one person?

Technology offers a perpetual parade of alternatives that you can explore more deeply with the click or swipe of a finger. With a smartphone, social media apps put all those alternatives in your back pocket. You can even explore them while on a date with your significant other just by taking a quick scroll through your Instagram feed. You may not be doing it intentionally, but on your feed you could come by scores of other potential options that distract you from your commitment to your partner. Those other options could range from an ex’s new vacation photo to your best friends posting about having brunch without you.

In many ways, social media affects a relationship much like watching pornography does. Studies have shown that watching pornography can increase your perception of romantic alternatives, because pornography explicitly invites you to watch another potential, though entirely fabricated, relationship. Further, many of the relationships depicted in pornography take place outside of committed relationships. A study by the University of Central Florida’s Social Psychology and Personality Science found that college students who watch pornography regularly felt that they had more potential romantic partners. The study also found that students who regularly watched pornography were more likely to cheat on their significant other. 

Although the two seem vastly different, both pornography and social media lessen the commitment people feel toward their romantic partners. Both platforms showcase other options and their allure is powerful, even when we know that the alternatives are fake or staged. Engaging with social media is nearly inescapable, which means it is that much harder for people to maintain high levels of commitment to their significant others. A wandering eye can quickly become an unconscious habit.

Exploring alternatives in relationships is a natural thing that people have always done; however, social media is an added outlet that expands those alternatives and makes them easy to access at any given time. Both pornography and social media can make it harder to be committed to your romantic partner. The best ways to stay committed are to be conscious of your tendency to view alternatives and to avoid doing so while spending time with your romantic partner.

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