Random "hook-ups" are not just a popular aspect of teen TV shows like "The Real World" and "Laguna Beach."
In recent years, an increasing number of college students have viewed non-committal relationships as “cool,” while exclusive relationships have become as foreign as organic chemistry.
“The fear of commitment and exclusive relationships among college students may be a cause of a delayed maturation effect," said psychologist Diana Kirschner, a self-proclaimed love expert and best-selling author. “College-age individuals are acting more like [high schoolers] these days."
Moreover, college "dating" doesn't necessarily mean going on actual dates. Students confirm that as far as they're concerned, the dinner-and-a-movie date is for old fogies.
"[It's] 'come to my room to hang out or watch a movie' or 'let's go get wasted together,' ” said Julie Heppt, a senior at SUNY Binghamton in New York.
Terms like “we're seeing each other" and "hooking up” have begun to replace good old-fashioned titles like boyfriend and girlfriend, Heppt added.
According to "Hooking Up, Hanging Out and Hoping for Mr. Right: College Women on Mating and Dating Today," a report by Institute for American Values scholars Norval Glenn and Elizabeth Marquardt, “college dating is also often synonymous with hanging out, in which women and men spend loosely organized, undefined time together, without making their interest in one another explicit, unless they hook up, at which point dating and hooking up become the same thing.”
Students say this avoidance of monogamy and commitment is tied to the fact that they are trying to balance their social, independent and academic lives for the first time.
“We're in a transition period — college students are experimenting to see what they want," said Ohio University senior Dean Bonham.
According to Bonham, the desire to have more personal free time, as well as time to hang out with friends, lead to a desire for open relationships, with the need for "me" time greatly exceeding the desire for "we" time.
Kirschner says teenagers also are becoming more of the center of attention within their families, causing college students to be less likely to embrace serious relationships, in which he or she must give up a part of their ego.
Heppt said underclassmen in particular don't feel forced to commit because people around them aren't committed.
"If they have a core group of good and single friends, they won't feel alone nor feel the pressure of having to enter an exclusive relationship," she said.
On the other hand, Heppt said juniors and seniors in college often feel the need to settle down because they realize that they are almost adults, and that they can handle a mature relationship. They also might be looking to the future and beginning to worry about ending up alone.
But students have more than loneliness to fear. Although no-strings-attached relationships may seem appealing to teens and young 20-somethings, when sex is involved, sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy, rape/injury and broken hearts are all serious risks.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 25 percent of sexually active teenagers get a sexually transmitted disease (STD) every year, and 80 percent of infected teens don’t even know they have an STD, passing the diseases along to unsuspecting partners.
When it comes to HIV, about 50 percent of new cases occur in people under the age of 25.
As for pregnancy, according to plannedparenthood.com, 34 percent of American teens experience pregnancy, and the U.S. teen birth rate is the highest in the developed world.
That said, many college kids who aren't "going steady" aren't sleeping around. And Kirschner says time and age will eventually cause most youngsters to devote themselves to one mate.
"We are currently living in an age where people have longer and healthier lives, which give people more time to play around," she said.
Heppt, meanwhile, warns students to be careful.
"No one can tell these college students what to do, so to be safe I would recommend a good form of birth control and most importantly proper judgment," she said.