Digital Responses to Digital Relationships

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In preparation for (St.) Valentine's Day, I will post some reflections on love tomorrow — what it is, where (not) to look for it, and how to recognize it.

Last year, I dedicated my Valentine's comments to rediscovering the healthy proportion between intimacy and commitment. This year, I'll present some facts and commentary on how unfettered access to pornography may be affecting the new generations of love-seekers and homemakers.

But I didn't want more time to slip by without sharing with you a few reactions to our discussion on technology and communication. My original plan was to post the messages without offering a response. In the end, with the intention of continuing the conversation, I've opted to add a few words of my own after each note.

Thank you for being such loyal readers.

God bless, Father Jonathan

Fr. Jonathan,

My kids recently went to a “teen get-together.” They came home very disappointed to see that the whole time they were there (about 4 hours), the girls in the group were glued to their cell phones, laptops, and iPods. There was hardly any interaction. What's happening? All of this technology is making it so kids can't /don't know how to relate to other human beings! God help us! — A frustrated Mom

RESPONSE: I can certainly picture the scene you describe. What to do about it? Either you can commiserate with your kids about the decadence of social mores, or you can educate them to be leaders among their peers. Why don't you help them organize a get-together on their own terms, with well-organized and active events? The challenge, I think, is to raise kids capable of taking advantage of media and technology without turning these things into security blankets. As in everything else, kids need parents to lead by example. Keep up the great work!

Father Jonathan,

As I read your article today, I pictured in my mind my 30-year-old daughter sitting near me in the living area. Beside her, she had her personal cell phone and her work Blackberry. She periodically read and replied to text messages on one, and checked her email on the other. I could not help but wonder "when she would be home" for the evening. I do have a PDA that will send and receive e-mail, but I play solitaire on it; I leave my cell phone in my purse when I come home — I neither hear nor answer it! Many times I wish for the world you describe in Italy. My husband and I visited there a couple of years ago and I know exactly what you are writing. I would go back in a second and stay for a greater length of time if we were financially able. That slower, more person-connected life seems more the way God intended us to live, than this constantly connected, fast paced environment we have created here in the U.S. When I go home (to Louisiana), I often travel an old highway just for the pleasure of driving through small towns and remember how my world used to be. Thank you again, Father Jonathan, for writing about something so close to my heart! God bless you! — S.N. (Dallas, TX)

RESPONSE: If I were to live at home with my mother, with all my communication gadgets I am sure I would drive her nuts. Your daughter is probably just trying to be responsible, responding to people who depend on her. I've been thinking lately that the best way to wean ourselves from our e-mail, cell phone, and Blackberry dependency — without being irresponsible — is to inform all the people we work with what our response time will be. If people know we will only respond to e-mail once a day, for example, they will track us down another way if the issue is important. If, on the other hand, we always respond immediately, they will adapt accordingly and we will always be attached to the digital umbilical cord.

Dear Father Jonathan,

I was inspired to write you about an online relationship that I have established with a girl from the Ukraine. We have been in contact for just over seven months and it went from just a simple hello to a serious LOVE relationship, and we have not even had any human contact to date.

The digital age has changed my perspective of getting to know someone better and taking the time to get to know them, rather than thinking like a man who has no morals and let his male hormones overtake him and jump into a sexual relationship.

I've learned that communication is the real key to having a truly honest and loving relationship.

As a Christian man who recently turned his life over to Jesus Christ, I wanted to take a different path to finding a partner who has the same core values. When I met this person I new almost immediately that she was what I wanted in my life after reading her profile.

Thank you, and may God bless you.— Rick V.

RESPONSE: Rick, I'm sure some of our readers cringed when they read how much trust you are putting in this digital, long-distance relationship without ever having met her in person. But no doubt you are well aware of the risk. When we build up high levels of emotional intimacy and attachment without having access to all of the elements necessary to make a good judgment of character, we set ourselves up for disappointment. But I do believe in miracles and I wish you and your friend the very best. (I'm sorry I could only include part of your longer note.)

Father Jonathan,

When it comes to the ongoing growth of “digital relationships” it is fair to say that relationships are being fostered, but exactly what kind? Unlike the ages past that required people to communicate through either personal interaction or written communications, modern technology has allowed people to develop relationships based on the image they want to portray as opposed to the person they truly are. Call it a marketing plan for self. There is a terminal superficiality that accompanies this behavior. Technology might help connect those who are already in a relationship or can even help start one, but it will never supplant the value of a handshake, a hug or an honest thought on a piece of paper. — Josh C. (Florence, TX)

RESPONSE: Yes, a good handshake says a lot, Josh. Thanks a lot.

Father Jonathan,

Is technology the fountain of youth? As your reader from Brooklyn points out "Nothing appears as it actually is!" This can be a good thing. We are no longer judged by our appearance or locale. We are all 20 or 80. Age, gender, (dis)abilities, nationality/citizenship all become irrelevant. We are what we believe we are. All that is required is that we continue to grow, learn and adapt. Our avatar can be whoever we choose to see ourselves. Nor do I agree that technology is isolating. We can broaden our electronic relationships and collaboration across all boundaries. The dangers that you outline are real, but so are the freedoms. Why should technology take a backseat to family, friendship and beauty? Our challenge is to balance all these wonderful gifts from God. Interesting column. Keep up the interesting dialogue. God Bless! — Al

RESPONSE: Al, thanks for keeping me honest. Yes, it's unfair of me to point out the traps of new communication technology without also mentioning the good. Since we are communicating digitally on this blog, it's also a bit hypocritical. Mary from Maryland agrees with you.

Father Jonathan,

I don't disagree with your main point, however you have missed an even larger part of the story in searching only for the bad in what is new. What I have found is that through the Internet and e-mail, I have reconnected with family and friends who don't live close by, and even to some who do. The truth is that most people live fairly busy lives and it's a lot easier to find time to e-mail people, and respond to them at your leisure, then to write a letter or pick up the phone. I now regularly talk to old school friends that I had lost touch with and family members who are scattered all over the country. It is a nice feeling to be able to talk to my aunt in California, my best friend from school in Florida, or my cousin in North Carolina anytime I want, and the bonus is that they can respond when it is convenient for them, making the relationship stress free. For some of us this new technology is a win/win situation with no downside whatsoever. — Mary (Maryland)

Father Jonathan,

Isn't it interesting that in order to "connect" digitally via the Internet or cell phone that the circumstances inherently require you to be APART from the person you're connected with? I worry for my children that as they grow into teens they'll miss out on interpersonal interactions because they're too busy sitting ALONE at a computer and "chatting" online or whittling away hours "pimping out" their MySpace web page, and how much of that is that productive versus wasteful? — Kimberly

RESPONSE: Kimberly, I've seen this very same phenomenon in the college where I work. Sometimes I communicate several times a day by e-mail with someone in the same building while rarely seeing them face-to-face. When I notice this is happening regularly and with the same person, I've begun printing the e-mails I receive, responding to them in writing on the same page, and dropping it off personally at their office. People appreciate it.

Father Jonathan,

The real trick is for people to become aware of the true nature of Internet based relationships. Just as parents are able to help pre-teens navigate the waters of puppy love, , parents will need to be able to help their children navigate the waters of fractured Internet relationships. Parents with limited online relationships will have a hard time helping their children with online relationships, just like parents with limited dating experience have a hard time helping their love struck children in those relationships.

Don't forget that technology is evolving. Digital relationships will change. As bandwidth gets better, digital relationships will involve video conference, and all the body language and verbal nuances that come with it.

To give this particular digital relationship a bit of breadth I offer the following, something I would say to you were we to be having this exchange IRL (in real life). I'm not a fan of red wine, but I raise my Mountain Dew to you and offer a toast to young soccer players the world over. May they have enough victories to savor success, and enough losses to keep things in perspective. Cheers! — Bob

RESPONSE: Bob, how did you know I play soccer? Just pray for the victories; I already lose enough to keep things in perspective. Thanks for the note.

Fr. Jonathan;

No, we are not connected. We are merely sharing information. I watch with dismay as my grandkids play with their game console, which they prefer to spending tome with grandma/grandpa on our farm. It's a different world. — John (Auburn, KY)

RESPONSE: My guess, John, is your grandkids are going to have great memories of life on the farm with grandma/grandpa even if you can't imagine how.

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