Long-Distance at Uni: The Rise of the Virtual Relationship – A guest post by Kate Mager
In an increasingly digital age, romance is becoming more reliant on technology but is this helping or hindering young people in creating and maintaining meaningful relationships.
When I accompanied Spaghetti Brains blogger Laina to the Sex Education Forum last summer there was one talk that particularly grabbed us. Ester Mcgeeney, a researcher and practitioner with the sexual health charity Brook, presented the findings of a recent study highlighting the effects of technology in young people’s relationships. It was revealed that 62% of young people expect to hear from their partners every few hours or more, something that many found shocking. As the youngest in the room Laina and I were perhaps the only people who were not surprised by these statistics. Technology has become such an integral part of modern relationships, whether friendships or something more, that we barely notice it. As we are both in long-distance relationships we are especially reliant on technology for communication and the study made us examine our own experiences. For couples who take the plunge and try to stay together after the move to university, a successful relationship seems more feasible because of the wealth of options available when it comes to communication. However, does this actually help to maintain a healthy relationship long-term or does it instead create a reliance on technology that hinders the experience of university or more broadly ‘real’ life as whole?
Being able to have your phone on you at all times can serve as a distraction, but also an escape. 85% of young people have discussed with a partner things that were worrying them using messaging therefore, it could be easier to rely on a distant partner for support rather than developing new friendships. Laina said “I look at my phone too much if I know he [her boyfriend] is there to be messaging me, so if we are doing flat drinks and he is messaging me … I will get distracted from whatever you know ring of fire … or whatever weird games my flatmates come up with,” showing how easily technology can become a distraction from real world experiences. The effects of this can be seen in the extent of device use in America where a Common Sense Media study revealed that teenagers spend 6 to 9 hours a day ‘with media’ showing just how drastically technology can take over the lives of young people through addiction to their screens. Ester claims that “Technology helps us fill gaps in our life” adding that there is an “expectation that you should always be online.”
This ease of communication leads to what Ester termed “very frequent and sometimes quite meaningless conversation”. Laina reflected on her experience, “It doesn’t feel like you’ve properly spoken even though you have been talking all day,” highlighting an issue with digital communication. To compare, I spoke to someone who went to university a long time ago, my mum. Back in 1984 there was no FaceTime, WhatsApp and no mobile phones for texting and calling yet she managed to maintain a long-distance relationship, one that is still going strong now. She had to queue for the phone box to speak to my dad and, although brief texts don’t offer the same satisfaction as a long phone call, she feels as though young people get more out of a relationship today. She said, “going a week or two weeks without any communication at all, it would feel like you weren’t really in a relationship,” but feels that the quantity of communication would make her “more demanding” and would have put too much pressure on her partner. This is reflected in the Common Sense Media study, revealing that 78% of teens in America check their devices at least hourly creating an increasing pressure to constantly be in communication. We become used to what is available to us as Laina realised, stating, “Maybe in 50 years’ time people are gonna be like woah I can’t believe you survived long distance just with FaceTime”.
If a relationship exists too much online and not enough in person does it really count as a viable romantic relationship? In the Brook study an interview with one young person, Mark*, reveals that he has been in a long term, long distance relationship with someone he has never met face to face. They are in constant communication with Mark revealing that “At one point, we spent every second in a day with each other, we did a Skype call what lasted over 74 hours,” he said “I want to be able to hug her and kiss her,” showing a longing for physical interaction that is unable to be fulfilled through digital communication. However, Ester believes that the inability to meet face to face “didn’t in any way diminish the emotion or support” received from the relationship, the most important aspects. Though most cases of long distance relationships at university stem from something pre-existing they can turn into an almost virtual relationship and even with modern technology not everything can be communicated online. Only 56% of young people reported laughing til their stomach hurt whilst messaging, compared to 88% face to face. Despite the difficulties of communication in any long-distance relationship Laina looks to the positive saying, “there are some ways that being with each other 24/7 is difficult”, so this is merely a new way of conducting relationships, one that is neither better or worse, simply new.
It is unclear whether technology is increasing the number of successful long-distance relationships at university, but it is evident that it has changed them. There are new issues such as jealousy from seeing each other’s social media activity including pictures with new people, reliance on devices and anxiety when they can’t access them, and issues of privacy post break up. Especially for relationships that exist so predominantly online, a new level of trust is needed because, as mentioned by Laina, “you can burn a letter, you can’t burn a Facebook message or a nude,” once the relationship is over most of the communication is still available, unlike memories they do not fade. Ester feels that despite these problems long-distance relationships today can “perhaps feel more sustainable, more meaningful and more intimate” due to technology. However, it is important that schools and universities are prepared to give relevant support. Laina said, “one hundred percent I feel like sex education doesn’t address the relationship side of it enough,” because a lot of the teachers don’t have enough training especially as relationships are changing so rapidly with technology.
Romance is becoming more and more intertwined with the digital world. It is difficult to say whether technology is helping or hindering the maintenance of long distance relationships at university, but what is clear is that a new understanding is needed toward issues facing lovers in the digital age.
-By Kate Mager
*Fake names were used for study interviewees