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I had the strangest experience in class last week. My students had read two chapters on dating from a book manuscript I recently finished writing with my co-author Tom Smith, Dean of Arts and Sciences at Catholic University of America (Majoring in Life: The College Guide to Adulting). They posted moving reflections about these chapters in our online discussion platform—so moving, in fact, that I choked up while reading them.

One recognized that she had unintentionally opted out of dating in college, happy to blame other people, but was now realizing that she’d made herself emotionally unavailable in the process. Another noted the constant pressure on women to play games and add “spice” to stop men from getting bored. Games and hooking up are exhausting, she wrote, so she stopped altogether. Another talked about a heartbreak. A gay male student talked about opening up Tinder, hoping that someone might be looking for dates and genuine connections. He always exits the app feeling disappointed and lonelier than ever. Several of them committed to stepping out of their comfort zones and asking someone out on a date in person. 

But when they arrived at class and sat down next to each other, a feeling of deep unease settled around the seminar table. I mentioned how moved I was by their postings, and in an unexpected twist, instead of using those comments as a launching pad to talk to each other about dating on college campuses, one after another they piled on complaints against the chapters, the leading charge being that it was too heteronormative. The pronouns were all wrong. No queer stories. The air in the room got very tense. I left that class disoriented by the disconnect between what they had written online and our in-person discussion, where they hid behind an issue that affects almost no one in that room.

Then it hit me.

College students are used to opening up to each other on an astonishingly intimate level online—but in person, they lack the skills to become vulnerable to each other, to speak honestly with each other, and to negotiate conflict. Their romantic interactions are almost completely mediated through online encounters, whether dating apps, Snapchat, or texting. These online encounters occur on predatory platforms that monetize their loneliness, their exhaustion, their desires, and their desperation.

Whether on Bumble, Hinge, or Tinder, the expectation is a sexual encounter (although with Hinge, you also get a meal beforehand). Tinder can be a fun group activity, where drunk friends open one friend’s account and start swiping left and right. One student admitted, “I don’t go on it to date; I go on it to build my own confidence.” Another student went out with a guy on Bumble, an app that promotes itself as a portal to a real relationship, but then came across his profile on Tinder—where, she admits, she was scrolling herself—and was disappointed to realize that he was just looking for sex. 

What have these dating apps done to young people like my students? It has left them feeling empty, feeling worthless, feeling like they don’t deserve a real relationship that is as demanding as it is rewarding. They settle for a quick fix, a temporary satiation of a deep, human desire to love and be loved, to know and be known. The social cost to this embedded practice is novel. It is severe. It’s not just that there is no connection between how young people are negotiating romantic relationships these days and a flourishing married and family life. They’re in incommensurable universes. It is time for adults who care about young people to stop pretending that we wish things were otherwise, and to start listening very closely to them, to sit patiently beside them with compassion and care, and to open them up to an alternative and attainable vision.

Anna Bonta Moreland is the Anne Quinn Welsh Endowed Director of the Honors Program and an associate professor in the Department of Humanities at Villanova University.

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