Many policy experts, politicians, and everyday citizens have long been concerned with the breakdown of the family as a result of divorce or separation. But the lack of family formation in the first place is now an even more pressing problem. Birthrates have been falling around the world, a complex phenomenon with many contributing factors. Women are not finding partners in time to become mothers (though the vast majority want children), and young men are disproportionately single.
Sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin has observed that marriage—to the extent it is desired at all—is now viewed as a “capstone” rather than a “cornerstone” of life. That is to say, marriage is no longer considered the foundation of adult life but a kind of feather in the cap of a successful person. We have lost a shared understanding of the human person, of how familial and civic responsibility provide meaning, and what encompasses a life well-lived (as evidenced by this recent Wall Street Journal-NORC poll). These shifts in beliefs have affected marriage rates. But technologies like the smart phone, social media, and online dating have exacerbated the family formation crisis for the youngest generations.
In “A Science-Based Case for Ending the Porn Epidemic,” Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC) fellow Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry documents the devastating impact of online pornography addiction:
The scientific evidence has mounted: certain evolutionarily—designed features of our neurobiology not only mean that today’s porn is profoundly addictive, but that this addiction—which, at this point, must include the majority of all males—has been rewiring our brains in ways that have had a profoundly damaging impact on our sexuality, our relationships, and our mental health.
Pornography addiction alters the brain, directing people (mostly men) no longer to desire relationships with real women but to consume increasingly perverse and novel pornography (incest is a growing trend online). The inventions of YouTube and the smart phone were dual technological shocks that made high-quality pornography accessible, immediate, anonymous, and free.
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There is a deep sadness and predatory aspect to this epidemic. Many who are getting addicted are not men but boys who are more vulnerable in their underdeveloped capacity for self-control. They could be addicts for ten years or more by the time they seek a serious relationship.
The impact pornography is having on relations between men and women cannot be overstated. Men are opting for a rejection-free online world that disconnects them from reality and makes them increasingly sexually aggressive toward women. With religion on the decline, so are teachings that set boundaries for human behavior, and technologies can capture those who lack moral firmness.
Pornography might also explain why more men than women in their twenties are single. In 2019, 32% of women ages 18 to 29 were single compared to 51% of men; those numbers rose to 34% and 63%, respectively, in 2020 (presumably the lockdowns had an effect, as well). While women have historically married older men (taking that into account narrows the singlehood gender gap), that age gap could increase as women look to earlier generations of men who have been less damaged by internet pornography. Most women do not view pornography use within a relationship as acceptable.
Social media could be another technological driver of singlehood. Many individuals report they are single because they are not good at flirting (and more men than women list this as a reason). Millennials and Zoomers have grown up in a world where so many interactions are moderated through a digital intermediary. We don’t call, we text (and if we call, we text first to schedule the call). Spontaneous responses are rare and anxiety-inducing. The modern individual, as indicated by the rise of transgenderism and expressive individualism, incorrectly thinks he can dispense with the human body, which implies that virtual interactions are equivalent to embodied ones. But becoming socially adept has always been a matter of actual practice, and as EPPC scholar Clare Morell has put it, “Because of social media, teens today don’t know how to live in the real world…. They don’t know how to form real-life relationships or confront and cope with real-life disappointments and emotions.”
This, of course, impacts young people’s dating lives. One family psychologist noted, “I hear recurring dating themes from women between the ages of 25 and 45: They prefer men who are emotionally available, who are good communicators, and who share their values.” Those who have grown up with social media and smart phones can lack social maturity, inhibiting their ability to form real connections. And there is a 25% gap between men and women who believe it is acceptable to watch pornography in a relationship, perhaps encompassed in women indicating they are looking for someone who “shares their values.”
Women, in turn, report they are more likely to be single because of their weight. Rates of obesity have indeed been climbing. But contributing to this self-doubt is social media. Young women are constantly bombarded with images of idyllic models, and comparison leads to body insecurities, particularly in teenage girls.
Since Match.com was launched in 1995, online dating has grown sharply, shaping and transforming dating norms. There was once a stigma attached to online dating, but for many in the younger generations, it is now simply how things are done. In 2019, 48% of those aged 18 to 29 and 28% of those 30 to 49 said they met through the internet rather than in college, the workplace, or a bar. In a reversal, it seems to have become so out of the norm for men to approach women in person that some women now find it creepy (especially in the wake of #MeToo). This further encourages men to navigate to online platforms that have the added benefit of taking the sting out of face-to-face rejection.
While online dating is now a billion-dollar industry, it has not necessarily led to more and better relationships. Those who meet online versus in person are more likely to split up in the first three years of marriage. Apps that use smart phone location software easily enable immediate transient sexual encounters, leading to more casual interactions than sustained relationships. Hookup culture finds its roots in the transforming ideas of the Sexual Revolution, but technologies have further facilitated its realization. Online dating inherently prioritizes looks; it cannot fully capture the mystery of physical and emotional attraction that only reveals itself when embodied individuals meet.
Further, many users experience cognitive overload, because they have the false impression that they will always have unlimited romantic options, that someone better is out there waiting for them to swipe right. This encourages users to objectify one another (as does all social media); users forget there is a flesh and blood person behind the profile they are mercilessly critiquing. As one young woman explained, “Dating apps give people the sense that there is always a better option out there, which takes away from the humanity of the users.”
Individuals often report feeling harassed through online dating, and narcissism has been linked to aggressive behaviors online as well as aggressive dating behaviors. Roughly 63% of online users are men. These combined facts could give women the false impression that a disproportionate number of men are aggressive narcissists.
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Some are also questioning the algorithms and incentives of online dating companies and apps. Certain companies make money through paid subscriptions, and all attract more users by having a large community of participants, which means that dating companies are not purely incentivized to match singles successfully. Users have also reported being bombarded with new potential matches and fake accounts just as their subscriptions are up for renewal, suggesting that platforms are actively trying to keep people on for longer.
Technology is not solely to blame for the modern lack of relationship formation. Being spiritually bereft and lost as a society is the underlying woundedness that makes us vulnerable to technological manipulation. If we better understood the human person and where human beings derive meaning, we would not be desperately grasping for belonging in a virtual world. And more men would be better equipped for marriage had we adequately addressed the boy crisis of multiple generations.
In addition to falling educational and financial attainment and rising deaths of despair (like those from suicide and drug overdose) among males, for some time boys have been told they are unnecessary and toxic. Those boys who were in crisis 20 years ago are the men of today.
But technologies exacerbate and exploit human impulses. In evaluating the reasons for and appropriate solutions to the lack of family formation, part of the conversation is how much technologies have affected Americans of marrying age.
This piece originally appeared in The American Mind