The explosion of Internet dating affects teens and young adults principally by making the casual sharing of intimacies with strangers seem normal. Aldous Huxley foresaw this development (1932), though he envisioned it happening in half a millennium or so. One outcome is the mainstreaming of porn.

As Mary Jo Sales noted in Vanity Fair (2013), thanks to the selfie, behaviour that we would at one time expect to find only in seedy nightclubs after dark, we can now find in the daytime in the elementary school cafeteria:

“I first started seeing people doing selfies in sixth grade,” said Emily, a senior at a private school in L.A. “Back then everybody was on MySpace. In sixth grade everybody started getting phones and they started posting pictures of themselves, and it was weird, ’cause, like, a lot of the pictures were supposed to look sexy and they had the duck face and we were all, like, 11.”

“My little cousin, she’s 13, and she posts such inappropriate pictures on Instagram, and boys post sexual comments, and she’s like, ‘Thank you,’” said Marley, a New York public-school girl. “It’s child pornography, and everyone’s looking at it on their iPhones in the cafeteria.”

That development, of course, will make it difficult in the coming decades to maintain laws against child pornography. Such laws assumed that children were not accustomed to pornography and needed protection from it, for the sake of normal development. Today, children can manufacture it themselves. And come to expect it as part of a relationship.

As one interview subject told Sales,

“We don’t date; we just hook up,” another girl in L.A. told me. “Even people who get in a relationship, it usually starts with a hookup.” Which can mean anything from making out to having sex. “When you have sex with a guy, they want it to be like a porno,” said a 19-year-old girl in New York.

Of course, no mature adult supposes that, in the past, teens and preteens were innocent. That said, in the past, high school seniors would fantasize bedding the quarterback or the beauty queen. They did not think of making a porno for general consumption.

Whether they would have done so is beside the point. They couldn’t. They had little to go on but their own imaginations, and most people are not very imaginative.

It is a whole new game now. Counsellor Kim Goldman of the Santa Clarita Valley Youth Project offers,

They all want to be like the Kardashians. Kendall Jenner posts bikini shots when she’s 16 and gets 10,000 likes, and girls see that’s what you do to get attention.”

According to Goldman, in 2013 teen girls were all reading Fifty Shades of Grey, a book that celebrates a woman allowing herself to be abused (the widely anticipated film is now in theatres) and the Glamour site swoons over the stars.

The 2012 documentary Sexy Baby (Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus) paints a different picture while documenting the mainstreaming of porn. They told Sales that they

went on a research mission to a porn convention in Miami where “they were selling stripper poles to college girls and housewives,” said Bauer. “There were so many mainstream women idolizing the porn stars and running after them to take pictures, and we were like, ‘Whoa, this exists?’”

Yes, it indeed exists. New social media send the message that porn is a normal response to awakening sexuality. From Internet Safety 101:

Porn Sites Get More Visitors Each Month Than Netflix, Amazon And Twitter Combined.

• 30% of the Internet industry is pornography.

• Mobile porn is expected to reach $2.8 billion by 2015.

• The United States is the largest producer and exporter of hard core pornographic DVDs and web material, followed by Germany.

A Google Trends analysis indicates that searches for “Teen Porn” have more than tripled between 2005-2013.

Teens are receiving the message:

One out of three youth who viewed pornography, viewed the pornography intentionally.

• Seven out of ten youth have accidentally come across pornography online.

Mainstreaming porn has affected feminism too. From the suffragettes onward, feminists denounced pornography as objectifying women. But a recent trend, documented by Princeton’s April Alliston, links objectification with advances in women’s rights. The idea seems to be that women can be just like men, in that they can be emotionally indifferent sexual consumers, focused on career ambitions.

From Kate Taylor at the New York Times:

Hanna Rosin, in her recent book, “The End of Men,” argues that hooking up is a functional strategy for today’s hard-charging and ambitious young women, allowing them to have enjoyable sex lives while focusing most of their energy on academic and professional goals.

I’m not even going to address the hackneyed question of whether women can be just like men. (No, they can’t, but if a person is not convinced by basic biology, I for one am not going to argue the case.)

Two other assumptions are certainly wrong: that most men usually think that way and that it would be in an intelligent woman’s interests to associate with a man who does.

The critical question is, what happens after the students who are accustomed to the hookup culture graduate? Do they just forget it all and go on to find meaningful, long-term relationships? Former Boston College prof Donna Freitas (End of Sex, 2013) has her doubts:

College students learn from the media, their friends, and even their parents that it’s not sensible to have long-term relationships in college. College is a special time in life — they will never get the chance to learn so much, meet so many people, or have as much fun again. Relationships restrict freedom — they require more care, upkeep, and time than anyone can afford to give during this exciting period between adolescence and adulthood. They add pressure to the already heavily pressured, overscheduled lives of today’s students, who, according to this ethos, should be focusing on their classes, their job prospects, and the opportunity to party as wildly as they can manage. Hookups allow students to get sex onto the college CV without adding any additional burdens, ensuring that they don’t miss out on the all-American, crazy college experience they feel they must have. They can always settle down later.

But can they? I doubt it will be that simple, for several reasons:

First, contra Hollywood, success in relationships takes modelling and practice, not just suddenly “discovering” The Right Person. If we are emotionally detached, there is no Right Person anyway, just the one we happen to be with at the moment.

It is not clear that young adults immersed in virtual impersonal porn and disposable relationships even know much about relationships that can’t just be Unfriended. And do they even want such relationships?

Freitas discovered plenty of angst on campus among the hooker uppers. There is, of course, a simple solution. Stop hooking up. Spend time learning to live with yourself.

Indeed, Mary Jo Sales put a question to some of the teens she interviewed:

“Social media is destroying our lives,” said the girl at the Grove.

“So why don’t you go off it?” I asked.

“Because then we would have no life,” said her friend.

Well, at least we have identified the problem. Many young people are uploading their lives onto the Internet, which vacuums them up and gives nothing back. We need to help them snatch their actual (not virtual) lives back if they want actual, real relationships.

Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...