Catalina Toma looking at smartphone
Photo: Paulius Musteikis

When I started studying communications technologies in graduate school, they were quite a novelty. My advisor and I did some of the first research on online dating. It’s now the number-one modality by which couples meet! The landscape has shifted profoundly in the last couple decades, which has posed challenges for keeping my courses fresh. But I am also very fortunate because there is intrinsic interest and natural attraction to this material. Undergraduates are some of the earliest adopters of these technologies, and they come to me with ideas and thoughts that often result in research topics.

In addition to large lecture courses, I teach an upper-level undergraduate seminar called Dynamics of Online Relationships. My students and I examine how people use texting, social networking sites and online dating to initiate, manage and terminate relationships. For instance, we’ve discussed the use of communications technology within co-located dating [people who see each other all the time], as well as how couples present themselves on Facebook [single, in a relationship, etc.] and whether that affects the longevity of their relationships. It turns out that the answer is “yes.”

We also delve into people’s beliefs and perceptions about these technologies. We talk about the history of media and how, whenever a new media emerges, we attribute a lot of power to that media. We think it will change society, for better or for worse! But often our views are overly simplistic. I want my students to think like social scientists.  What is fact? What is opinion? What is good evidence? What kind of claims can we make, based on the scholarship, and what kind of claims do we need more evidence for?

Self-presentation and deception are topics that resonate with students, and this is a primary research area for me as well. We talk about how people construct various versions of themselves through profiles on social networking or dating sites, and whether these profiles are accurate. People are really terrible lie-detectors. Our ability to detect deception is around 54 percent, which is not much more accurate than flipping a coin. Students love these topics!

I’m trying to instill media literacy in the realm of interpersonal relationships. In my courses, students are developing an understanding of how the media impacts our ability to fulfill our relational needs and manage our psychological needs. Students move from a simplistic grasp to a more complex understanding: What are the relevant features of media in any given encounter? How are individuals affected differently? As they acquire a more complex understanding of the technology and the psychology, they can recognize those dynamics in the encounters we have in daily life.

Technology changes all the time. My students from 2022 are grappling with issues and platforms that didn’t exist in 2010. What is enduring is a way of thinking about these technologies that can be applied to the future.

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