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Apps are definitely changing our sexual behavior, we’re just not sure how

Plenty of analysis has whiffed on diagnosing the impact of dating apps on our behavior — but that doesn’t mean we’re immune.

Recently, three researchers at Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Observation and Research in Sexuality and Gender Matters (ORGASM) Lab, Alex Lopes, Cory Pedersen, and Kaylee Skoda, asked a group of gay and bisexual men to consider this scenario: You’ve been messaging a hot guy you matched with on a dating app. You’ve both been getting pretty flirty and sexual. You’ve both made it pretty clear that you’re getting turned on by this exchange. Then, the team showed the men a phone screen of the most recent hypothetical messages in this chain, one of which used an eggplant-and-rain emoji combo and the last of which clearly propositioned: “I’m pretty close to you. Think you’d want to come over and have some fun?” How, the researchers wanted to know, would their assembled subjects respond to this steamy John Doe?

But what they really wanted to know was not, say, how different demographics respond to phone-based hookup offers. Without drawing attention to it, they’d made a subtle tweak to the phone screens, with some displaying a 100 percent phone battery life, some 20 percent, and some five percent. They wanted to see if this seemingly irrelevant detail would affect the men’s decision making — and lo and behold, the lower the screen’s displayed battery life, the more likely men were to agree to the hookup. As they wrote in a paper for the academic journal Sexuality & Culture in June, “when individuals are faced with a low phone battery, a sense of urgency may be experienced, which can increase risk-taking behaviors to accommodate an impending phone ‘death.’”

The idea that something as innocuous and, practically, inconsequential as phone battery life could actually change something as big as our sexual behaviors may seem like utter bullshit to many. After all, as social psychologist and sex researcher Justin Lehmiller told me, “we might like to think that our decision-making is immune from outside influences” like this. Our phones are just tools that we use to explore and enable our personal, entirely internal proclivities.

But no matter how absurd this study or the general idea that our phones and the apps on them can alter our sexual behaviors may seem, it is not bullshit. “The reality is that our behavior is subtly shaped by numerous outside factors that we don’t always consciously recognize at the time,” said Lehmiller. “There is actually quite a bit of research looking at how the use of smartphone dating and hookup apps is related to sexual behavior.” The sooner we embrace the reality that our phones can play a notable role in shaping our intimate lives, the sooner we can push back on that influence.

We’d only notice, or acknowledge, these effects if suddenly we lost access to our phones, and experienced a difference in our sexual behaviors or decision-making.

People often underestimate the effect that any tool or technology can have on the ways we think and act, said Pamela Rutledge, a psychologist who researchers precisely these effects. Part of our chronic denial may stem from the fact that, as the psychologist Bernard Luskin has noted, media and technology are the air we breathe now, so ubiquitous that any effects they may have appear invisible, as if they are already a part of us. We’d only notice, or acknowledge, these effects if suddenly we lost access to our phones, and experienced a difference in our sexual behaviors or decision-making.

Part of this denial may be more of an intuitive act of self-preservation, as the psychologist Brad Bushman has argued when exploring why so many people balk at the idea that violent media could have an effect on us despite ample studies suggesting that it does. When faced with a study that claims something you like to engage with could be having an unexpected or unwanted effect on you, he noted, you’re likely to try to discredit that study so you can keep blithely engaging with that tool. Even folks who acknowledge that there could be some logic to the idea that a phone could influence behavior tend to believe that these tools or devices “have a much stronger effect on others than [on] themselves — called the third-person effect.”

“Thinking this way increases our sense of personal control,” Lehmiller explained. Maintaining that sense of autonomy is vital to many people’s comfort and confidence in day-to-day life. Admitting that “a dying phone battery can influence the way one chooses a sexual partner,” added Skoda, “is a fairly sobering realization on how dependent we have become on technology,” and a blow to that sense of control, of self-definition and internal consistency that few are keen to embrace.

The effects of media and tech on our behaviors, media psychologistsargue, are also just one variable among many, gradual, and varied from person to person or app to app. It is easy for many skeptics to write a force so subtle and imprecise off as negligible or nonexistent. But there is a rich body of evidence out there on how technology writ large can affect our thought processes. Most people probably harbor some lurking sense that tech in general can influence human life and behaviors, that the internet or television or computers have somehow changed our world. But it may be especially easy to doubt claims about the links between our phones and intimate lives because cultural commentators have been so apocalyptic, and gotten so much wrong, on this topic over the last few years.

Case-in-point: The overarchingnarrative on app-based dating in a number of major think pieces in the early- to mid-teens, like Vanity Fair’s infamous 2015 takedown of Tinder culture, was that they would obviously lead to an explosion in hookups and casual sex and a reticence to ever settle down in favor of swiping endlessly for something better — likely on the basis of looks alone. Yet recent studies seem to suggest that young millennials, a smartphone- and app-saturated demographic, are actually having less sex with fewer partners than previous generations. The things people look for in relationships, even on apps, haven’t really changed over the last decade, nor do apps seem to affect relationship stability. Some analyses actually suggest that, absolutely contrary to pop jeremiads, people meeting through Tinder may be getting married faster than those meeting offline.

With so many predictive misfires, it’s easy to call baloney on new assertions.

Smartphones and dating apps are also extremely new pieces of technology. We’ve only had the former for about 12 years and the latter for 10; Tinder has only been widely available for a little more than five. That’s not enough time for researchers to conduct a thorough array of studies, sort out the findings that seem to hold water across them, and hash them out conclusively in the public sphere. So it’s particularly easy to find holes in the methodologies of studies on the phone-sex intersection.

A number of early studies have, for instance, drawn correlations between phone-based app usage and things like a higher number of sexual partners and likelihood of being diagnosed with an STD — stand-ins for overall riskier sexual behavior. Some research also suggests that people who use smartphones to facilitate their dating or sex lives have lower self-esteem than their peers. Yet as Lehmiller pointed out, with the data we have thus far, it is hard to tell whether phones or apps cause these disparities, or whether the folks who use their phones to mediate their dating and sex lives are just more prone to sexual risk taking behaviors and low self esteem in the first place. “My research suggests that app users are more sexually active to begin with,” he noted, “and that they’d have more partners and more STDs as a group regardless of whether [dating apps] existed” or not.

Skoda stressed that the ORGASM Lab’s phone battery life study is itself very preliminary. It does make logical sense, noted Rutledge, as we know that the perception of scarcity, which a low phone battery may signal or exacerbate, does increase people’s sense of the urgency to act. (That’s the logic behind items are going fast or only so many days left advertising campaigns, which are demonstrably effective.) The phone battery study itself, Skoda pointed out, was inspired by a fellow researcher reading “a newspaper article that discussed how Uber users were more likely to pay for surge pricing when their phones had low batteries.”

This study was conducted as a hypothetical in a lab, which does not often reflect how people act or think in real life. And, Skoda noted, researchers need to see if the finding holds up across different demographics, types of dating apps, and contexts in general. The effect _could _be narrow or prove nonexistent.

“This isn’t to say that apps [and phones] have no effect on our behavior,” Lehmiller stressed. “It is very likely that they do.” Academics have started to make a strong case that the volume of options on dating apps and their swipe mechanics, taking into account the way human brains work, may be encouraging the objectification of others and rushed, ill-advised romantic-sexual decision-making. And that constant engagement with social media via phones seems to create informational distortion chambers that can at times amplify negative messaging about sex, sexual health, and sexual violence, influencing the thoughts and behaviors of those most hooked in. Troves of anecdotal evidence, consistent over multiple sources and years, also strongly suggest that, by simply giving us more and easier-to-access dating options, apps and similar tools change our relationship calculus, including making it easier for people to feel like they don’t need to stay in and settle for subpar or even toxic dynamics for lack of a wealth of other opportunities.

The sooner we can accept that things like a phone’s battery life, or other aspects of phone-mediated relationships and sex, can have an effect on our intimate behaviors, though, the better.

It will just take time for those effects to become apparent and agreed upon. It took decades for researchers and public health experts to reach some nuanced conclusions about how depictions of sex on television can influence people’s sexual behaviors. To wit, a show can shift what viewers think is normal, and thus will seek, in a sexual encounter, depending on how realistic they believe the program to be, and a host of other potential mitigating factors. And even that field of study still has its doubters and naysayers, likely because of the challenges involved in doing research in this field. If one believes that certain types of TV viewing could possibly have a deleterious effect on people’s sexual health, then it’s not exactly ethical to run a randomized experiment regulating their media diets to see what happens. Nor is it ever easy, Rutledge pointed out, to control for every possible confounding variable that could affect one’s behaviors.

So there’s always room for some amount of doubt and negation. But generally, time and consistent findings, communicated repeatedly to the public with rising certainty, can get us to acknowledge uncomfortable realities about how things like phones can affect our intimate selves, no matter how much we like to believe we control that part of ourselves fully.

The sooner we can accept that things like a phone’s battery life, or other aspects of phone-mediated relationships and sex, can have an effect on our intimate behaviors, though, the better. We have finally reached a point in time when more people meet online, many via dating apps, than meet in person or through friends and family, and in which phone based dating apps are now a vital part of some subcultures’ dating and sex lives. If phones become our primary tool for dating and sex, then we really need to know and discuss how they do affect our intimate selves.

Awareness of the type of effects phones can have on our intimate lives can help us subvert these mediums for good. We know, for instance, that putting certain messaging into certain TV shows can have a huge effect on things like people’s level of knowledge about condoms and their usage or the extent to which they stigmatize people living with HIV, and how to use that power to insert effective pro-sexual health and wellness messaging into the media. It would help to know how we can best use phones to make our sex lives definitively _better _and safer more often than not.

But on a much more basic level, becoming aware of the effects our phones and the apps on them can have on us is key to modulating those effects that may concern us. As Rudledge put it, it would “help people recognize when they are reacting to a ‘trigger’ rather than thinking through and coming to a rational decision” about their sex or dating life on their own. Then they can take that power back for themselves.

Mark Hay is a freelance writer, covering food, politics, and sex. He previously wrote about the Trump administration’s approach to psychedelic research for The Outline.