Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


The Future of Online Relationships

Online Romance. Photo: Don Hankins via Creative Commons

Online Romance. Photo: Don Hankins via Creative Commons

What role has the internet had to play in modern day social relationships and what does the future hold for generations that are growing up online?


Patricia Wallace, the author of The Psychology of The Internet

John Suler, the author of Psychology of the Digital Age

Kent Norman, the author of Cyberpsychology

Raphael Cohen-Almagor, the author of Confronting the Internet’s Dark Side

Patricia Wallace:

For thousands of years, human social relationships were constrained by geography.  People built strong ties with tribe members, and typically chose a life partner who lived within nearby.

In our own century, social relations still also mostly rely on opportunities to meet and become acquainted, because the people attend the same school, work in the same building, or attend the same community functions.  Maintaining social relationship also benefit from nearness; if friends move away, contact usually dwindles along with any emotional attachments.

Although these simple principles still apply, they are far less powerful in determining the patterns of social relationships.

Now, social networks help make it much easier to maintain ties and to build new ones with friends of friends, regardless of location.   The shift is especially evident for singles who participate in online dating sites and can scroll through hundreds or thousands of profiles, seeking that special partner. The choices and possibilities are mind-boggling, a feature that brings both pros and cons.

“…the dependence has its downsides, with young people feeling less able to navigate face-to-face conversations, or meet new people in person.” – Patricia Wallace.

For the digital natives, the Internet’s support for connectedness is so familiar that they marvel at anyone who doesn’t actually send text messages. But the dependence has its downsides, with young people feeling less able to navigate face-to-face conversations, or meet new people in person.

Strange as it seems, many of my students recognize this failing and are seeking advice about how to have a “real” conversation, one without mobile phone distractions.  The psychology of the Internet and its role in social relationships will continue to evolve, and I predict the young people who are growing up online will adjust and adapt, blending their online worlds with their face-to-face contacts in new ways that draw on the best of both.  Of the many disruptive innovations the Internet has wrought, the challenge to geographic limits on social relations is a certainly a key one.

John Suler:

We are learning some good lessons about the unheathy use of social media. Playing to the crowd to get more “likes” is a dead end. Little tidbits posted about yourself works well to keep people updated, but not so well for developing a friendship.

Displaying only an idealized version of yourself does not actually impress anyone – in fact, people might feel envious, bad about themselves, or just plain bored with you. Multitasking your friends, family, and colleagues in-person and online turns you into a jack-of-all-trades in your most important relationships, and a master of none.

Instead, we and the generations growing up with the Internet will learn how to enrich our relationships by communicating via writing, images and talking, via synchronous and asynchronous methods, and whether we are near or far or on-the-go.

The biggest lesson we will learn is that socializing online offers many fun, convenient, and interesting possibilities, but it is no substitute for being in-person. As the famous psychotherapist Fritz Perls used to say, “Be here now.”

Do you and your companions really want to be texting on and off throughout your dinner at a nice restaurant?

Do you really want to be distracted by taking selifes as you blow out the candles on your birthday cake, or do you just want to focus on your wish?

I once spoke with people who felt totally devoted to the rich meaning they found in their online lifestyles, especially how they could share their souls with companions in a text relationship. Curious, I asked them, “If you had to choose between spending the rest of your life relating to people only online or only in-person, what would you do?”

Most fell silent, but one said, “I’d stay online”….

Would you?

Kent Norman:

The Internet has been for most college students an additional channel for communication.  But some their primary channel.  So it goes without saying that studies have shown that social relationships are largrely mediated by the Internet and in the post-PC era, by mobile devices such as tablets, smart phones, and smart watches.

But I believe that for the next generation, social relationships will be further enhanced with virtual reality and augmented reality devices.

Virtual reality goggles will come to the consumer market shortly.  Facebook has acquired Oculus Rift and the consumer version will be released in 2016.  Sony Morpheus for the PlayStation 4 will also be released in 2016, but primarily for gaming. HTC Vive in conjunction with Steam has a release date of November 2015.

These devices will have the potential of connecting people and worlds in a truly immersive experience. Imagine leaving the primitive virtual chat rooms of The Palace and Second Life and being immersed in spaces with your Facebook friends.  You can meet up at a café in Paris, a ride in Disney World, or a concert at Woodstock!

But the industry gurus are actually predicting a bigger impact with augmented reality, which will combine the real world with the virtual and will allow users to be mobile.

I know Goggle Glass was a big failure and the project terminated, but the industry learned a lot about how to develop the next round of devices.

Rather than posting my travel pictures to Facebook, I can bring my friends with me in my AR goggles on my visit to the Parthenon. They will see what I see and I can enjoy their expressions and comments.

“In the 1990s, one of my friends got married after meeting his future wife online. My wife and I listened to our friends’ love story with some astonishment.” – Raphael Cohen-Almagor

Raphael Cohen-Almagor:

The digital age is an age of electronics and gadgets. Many prefer to stay in doors, surrounded by their electronic equipment. Many children nowadays do not go out to play in public spaces. This is due to a growing feel of insecurity, fears, parents’ protectiveness, and the in-house inclinations of today’s generation.

Young and old people make friends online, proud to have many virtual friends whom they will never meet, Netusers from different corners of the world. Because their ability to master technology, many Netusers would like to master their time more effectively. Thus, many people of the younger generations refrain to go to the movies because this activity takes time and is expensive.

Many of my students watch movies online, at their own leisure, having as many breaks as they wish at their leisure.

In the 1990s, one of my friends got married after meeting his future wife online. My wife and I listened to our friends’ love story with some astonishment. They were our only friends who met each other online. More than twenty years later, a substantive number of couples meet online. As many professionals are busy working, they do not have time, or they do not allow themselves time to meet and woo others. The Internet serves many people well.

The meaning of friendship has been changing. Many are proud to have more than one thousand friends on social-networking sites. Often, the online relationships are far less meaningful and demanding than friendship off-line. People invest less in such friendships, and they expect less. But, as said, people can fall in love and form very meaningful relationships online if they choose.

Read the rest of this 6-part Roundtable Discussion:

Part One: Cyberpsychology
Part Two: Misusing the Internet
Part Three: When Kids Go Online
Part Four: The Future of Online Relationships
Part Five: The single most important issue in cyber psychology today
Part Six: The Future of the Internet

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