What to Teach Children in the Age of Tinder and Fragile Families
Tevye: Golde, The first time I met you Was on our wedding day— I was scared. Golde: I was shy. Tevye: I was nervous. Golde: So was I. —Fiddler on the Roof1 In this turn-of-the-20th-century scene of Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye (a peasant dairy farmer) and Golde (his wife of 25 years) reflect on […]
Tevye: Golde, The first time I met you
Was on our wedding day—
I was scared.
Golde: I was shy.
Tevye: I was nervous. Golde: So was I.—Fiddler on the Roof1
In this turn-of-the-20th-century scene of Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye (a peasant dairy farmer) and Golde (his wife of 25 years) reflect on the circumstances of their initial encounter. They got married as two fearful strangers, brought together unseen by a village matchmaker as dictated by generations of Jewish practice.
But now Tevye has bad news. He reluctantly tells Golde that he just gave their eldest daughter permission to marry her childhood friend, a poor tailor with whom she had fallen in love and wished to betroth. Tevye was traumatized that, in giving his blessing, he had broken the customs of his family and Jewish faith. He confessed that he could not force their daughter to wed the matchmaker’s selection of a wealthy butcher and widower, who was older than Tevye himself. Despite his best efforts to preserve tradition, Tevye knew that the times were changing and people were beginning to choose their spouse in different ways.
A century later, we are in the midst of another tectonic shift in how men and women are finding their lovemates. This time, the change comes in the wake of an unprecedented fraying of family ties and stability. The change in methods of finding romantic partners could be harmless. Then again, when combined with the events of the past half century, it could accelerate trends that have already wrought financial, social, and emotional devastation on so many families. In this chapter, I will argue that—regardless of what the popular narrative might say—young Americans have a lot to learn from couples like Golde and Tevye. Family still matters today, and a little dose of tradition might help the cause of strong and stable families in an era of social upheaval.
A new Stanford University study documents a recent stratospheric rise in online matchmaking. Paired with this rise is a rapid decline in romantic introductions initiated through trusted intermediaries such as family, friends, coworkers, and church members. As Figure 1 shows, online matchmaking is now the most popular way for heterosexual couples in the US to meet. According to the researchers, “Internet meeting is displacing the roles that family and friends once played in bringing couples together.”2
This was not always the case. The researchers note that “in 2009, meeting through friends was by far the most common way heterosexual couples met, and this had been true for 60 years since the immediate post World War II period.” However, internet hookups began eclipsing meeting through friends for the first time around 2013. Moreover, “Eighty-nine percent of couples who met online from the 2017 survey were previously strangers, meaning there was no personal connection between the respondent and partner before they met online.”3 This represents an increase of 15 percentage points—up from 74 percent in 2009.
For most young adults, the tendency to find love almost exclusively via digital dating sites such as Bumble, Coffee Meets Bagel, eHarmony, Match, and OkCupid didn’t just originate in adulthood.4 This tendency is the product of years of learned behavior that developed and normalized during the habit-forming period of adolescence—which is now dominated by excessive social media use.
According to the Pew Research Center study Teens, Social Media & Technology 2018, 45 percent of teens age 13–17 say they use the internet “almost constantly,” while another 44 percent say they go online several times a day. This means roughly nine in 10 teens go online at least multiple times per day, with a particular stickiness on social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat.5 In the first experimental study of how people use these three sites, University of Pennsylvania researchers found a causal link between time spent on these platforms and depression, loneliness, and decreased well-being.6 Both the American Psychological Association and the American Association of Pediatrics argue that “excessive social media usage may contribute to the development of mental health disturbance in at-risk teenagers, such as feelings of isolation, depressive symptoms, and anxiety.”7
These feelings of social isolation among teens may be one reason older members of the millennial generation, age 23–38, are now referred to as mil(lonely)als. A recent poll from YouGov found that 30 percent of millennials say they “always or often” feel lonely, the highest percentage of all generations surveyed, including baby boomers and Generation X.8
While desire for companionship is at the core, the Stanford researchers emphasize that the shift of this generation to online relationship-making is due primarily to the technical efficiencies offered by the internet—namely, anonymous, real-time access to a much larger pool of geographically proximate, would-be lovers who are customized to one’s own preferences. Moreover, the authors note that they do not observe evidence that relationships formed through the internet are inherently more or less stable than relationships formed through more traditional means.
Still, as the authors warned in their 2012 study, Searching for a Mate: The Rise of the Internet as a Social Intermediary,
If one believes that the health of society depends on the strength of the local traditional institutions of family, church, primary school, and neighborhood, then one might be reasonably concerned about the partial displacement of those traditional institutions by the Internet.9
What is most concerning about America’s newly ensconced online dating culture is that it comes on the backdrop of a half-decade-long unraveling of the most foundational institutions that bind our people together—not the least of which is family. Perhaps the most relevant trend of all is the growing marriage divide between more-affluent Americans and their poor and working-class peers. New means and methods of sorting and finding partners, when combined with the already devastating family trends of the past half century, could prove especially damaging to the strength and stability of our marriages.
Indeed, it would be an ostrich-like denial not to explore how these trends are affecting our social fabric and children, given the transactional nature and growing number of internet-driven romantic unions. As detailed in The Marriage Divide, a majority of middle- and upper-class Americans are married, whereas an increasing number of working-class and poor Americans do not get the chance to tap into the many benefits of a strong and stable marriage. As the report outlines,
College-educated and more affluent Americans enjoy relatively strong and stable marriages and the economic and social benefits that flow from such marriages. By contrast, not just poor but also working-class Americans face rising rates of family instability, single parenthood, and life-long singleness. Their families are increasingly fragile, and poor and working-class Americans pay a serious economic, social, and psychological price for the fragility of their families.10
This divide is only widening. As 10 years (2008–17) of census data indicate, the percentage of births to women age 24 and under that occur outside of marriage has held steady at an astronomical 71 percent. (Someday these data will be collected on men as well, so women alone do not bear the burden of being “blamed” for the explosion in nonmarital births.) Scholars at Columbia and Princeton University jointly running a longitudinal, nationally representative study of child well-being refer to this new generation of unmarried parents and their children as “fragile families” to “underscore that they are families and that they are at greater risk of breaking up and living in poverty than more traditional families.”11
And because the unmarried young women and men in fragile families are more likely to dissolve their relationships, they are also more likely to begin new partnerships that result in subsequent nonmarital births with other households, thus forming “complex families.”12 According to the study “New Partners, More Kids: Multiple-Partner Fertility in the United States,” published in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, nearly 60 percent of the unmarried mothers surveyed at the baseline of the Columbia and Princeton study had had a child with a different partner by the nine-year follow-up.13 And according to the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997, by 2008, 47.6 percent of fathers age 23–27 who were unmarried and nonresident at first birth had had at least one more child with a different partner.14 All this points to the ultimate reality of contemporary family life in the United States: Our families—especially those from a poor or working-class background—are finding themselves in increasingly complex and unstable arrangements.
Why should this trend toward family instability concern scholars and policymakers? Because a wide range of longitudinal research demonstrates that children raised in an unstable family environment are more likely to experience poverty, suffer toxic stress and adverse childhood experiences, exhibit behavioral and academic issues in school, and place greater demand on the educational institutions serving them.
Indeed, strong and stable marriages are the cornerstone of a free and prosperous society because they bring innumerable benefits to both children and communities. My colleague W. Bradford Wilcox summarizes these best in a recent report outlining the problem of marriage penalties in the US tax and transfer system:
Children are more likely to flourish educationally, economically, socially, and emotionally, when they are raised by two married parents. Educationally, children raised in intact homes are significantly more likely to graduate from college, compared to children from non-intact families. Young adults from intact families also are more likely to realize the American Dream—to have more family income as adults than they did growing up—compared to their peers from unstable families. Alternatively, children in single-parent families are more than four times more likely to be poor than children raised by married parents. Socially and emotionally, girls are 2–5 times more likely to end up pregnant in adolescence and boys are 2–3 times more likely to end up incarcerated before they turn 30 if they grow up in a non-intact family. Children raised in cohabiting families are more than twice as likely to be suspended or expelled from high school compared to adolescents living with married parents.
Family structure also matters at the community level—on outcomes ranging from poverty to public safety. Child poverty is markedly lower in states where a larger share of children are raised in married-parent families. Work by economist Raj Chetty finds that one of the top predictors of economic mobility for poor children is the share of two-parent families in a community. Sociologist Robert Sampson concludes that, “Family structure is one of the strongest, if not the strongest, predictors of . . . urban violence across cities in the United States.”15
Given marriage’s numerous crucial benefits for children and communities, it quickly becomes clear that the growing marriage divide and the unraveling fabric of family stability in vulnerable communities across the nation pose a grave threat to our way of life. Furthermore, decades of growing family instability have left far too many of our families and children in a vulnerable state today—all of which adds even greater concern to the fundamental change that has occurred over the past few years in America’s dating culture. The concern is not that online dating—in itself—poses the threat of irreparable harm to our families, but rather that such a dramatic upheaval of previous traditions and practices could shock an already fragile ecosystem of family ties and harm many vulnerable Americans.
**** So how do we tackle this issue? The role and responsibility of schools in this process are often unacknowledged. In “How Family Transitions Affect Students’ Achievement,” Nicholas Zill states that
it is not generally appreciated how much burden has been placed on our public schools by the revolutionary increases in divorce, cohabitation, and unmarried childbearing that took place over the last half century. We expect schools not only to cope with these changes, but also to solve any student achievement or behavior problems that might arise from dysfunctional family dynamics.16
As the CEO of a network of all-boys and all-girls public charter schools that educates nearly 2,000 students in low-income communities in the heart of the South Bronx and Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York, I see this phenomenon daily. The challenge we face is how to help our young scholars engage in life beyond the classroom, particularly for adolescents making transitions to middle or high school, who typically have difficulty “fitting in” and achieving a sense of belonging in their new academic and social environments.
This is why my charter schools embed in their middle school curricula rigorous academics alongside activities specifically designed to facilitate meaningful, in-person connections. This includes volunteer service in the local community; team sports (especially for girls); group-driven, project-based learning to promote collaborative problem-solving; annual home visits by teachers; back-to-school family potluck dinners; “gratitude” luncheons at Thanksgiving; participation in the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts; precollege summer experiences in which students take classes on a college campus with professors and live in dorms; and weekly, school-wide “unity” meetings to celebrate our core values of scholarship, merit, responsibility, and brotherhood and sisterhood.
We use the 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens as an anchor text and teach the data associated with the “success sequence” to ensure exiting eighth graders understand the series of life decisions related to education, work, and timing of family formation most correlated to entry into the economic middle class and beyond.17 This is especially important as they embark on the crucial life stages of high school, college, and the first four years of young adulthood, when the relationships they form and decisions they make will have lifelong consequences—positive or negative.
All these core and extracurricular interventions seek to place our young scholars in real-world networks that give them the opportunity to encounter new people, develop and negotiate trusting relationships, and perhaps even someday meet the trusted intermediaries that will introduce them to their lifelong mate.
Without a crystal ball, no one knows exactly how technology will affect how people find their true love or whether real-world friends will ultimately be disintermediated in the process. As evidence, Facebook has launched an aptly named dating app called Secret Crush, which will let users “explore potential romantic relationships within their own extended circle of friends.”18 Users can select nine Facebook friends and receive a notification if one of them reciprocates a Secret Crush interest. Then there is Mei, a new “relationship assistant” app that harnesses the power of artificial intelligence to “parse text conversations to estimate the compatibility and personality of the individual you’re chatting with, scoring along five traits: openness, emotional control, extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.”19 Ironically, the efficiency of these online matching sites might actually accelerate the type of assortative mating—the tendency of humans to mate within their socioeconomic peer group—that already helps propagate inequality across generations.20
For the young adults in middle- and upper-class households more prone to use these romance apps, Tinder-fueled courtships will unlikely spark a phenomenon of fragile and complex families. But for poor and working-class Americans, what we do know on this side of the marriage divide is that the current prevalence of unstable family structures involving young, unmarried mothers and nonresident fathers is creating challenging conditions for the kids being raised within them.
All of us should recognize the vital role that schools and other institutions must play in ensuring the next generation does not become the loneliest generation—and does not fail to understand the power of trusting human networks to which they should belong. As the Stanford researchers note, in the past, “Meeting through friends and family provided guarantees that any potential partner had been personally vetted and vouched for by trusted alters.”21 There are some traditions worth preserving.
Even when confronted with his new reality, Tevye sought affirmation that the “old way” was not without merit:
Tevye: My father and my mother said we’d learn to love each other. And now I’m asking, Golde, Do you love me?
Golde: Do I love you?
After twenty-five years, why talk about love right now?
Tevye: Golde I’m asking you a question . . .
Do you love me?
Golde: You’re a fool
Tevye: I know . . .
But do you love me?
Golde: I suppose I do
Tevye: And I suppose I love you too
Tevye and Golde: It doesn’t change a thing
But even so
After twenty-five years
It’s nice to know
So even in a modern world, in which Tevye and Golde’s great-great-great-grandchildren could use Jdate.com to seek out a Jewish partner, it’s nice to know that finding love the old-fashioned way worked out after all. We should all be so lucky.
- Sheldon Harnick, “Do You Love Me?,” 1964, http://www.lyricsondemand.com/soundtracks/f/fiddlerontherooflyrics/doyoulovemelyrics.html.
- Michael Rosenfeld, Reuben J. Thomas, and Sonia Hausen, “Disintermediating Your Friends: How Online Dating in the United States Displaces Other Ways of Meeting,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116, no. 36 (July 15, 2019), https://web.stanford.edu/~mrosenfe/Rosenfeld_et_al_Disintermediating_Friends.pdf.
- Rosenfeld, Thomas, and Hausen, “Disintermediating Your Friends.”
- Rebecca Fleenor, “Best Dating Sites for 2022,” December 28, 2021, https://www.cnet.com/news/best-dating-sites-2019.
- Monica Anderson and Jingjing Jiang, Teens, Social Media & Technology 2018, Pew Research Center, May 31, 2018, https://www.pewinternet.org/2018/05/31/teens-social-media-technology-2018.
- Michele W. Berger, “Social Media Use Increases Depression and Loneliness,” University of Pennsylvania, Penn Today, November 9, 2018, https://penntoday.upenn.edu/news/social-media-use-increases-depression-and-loneliness.
- Jean M. Twenge et al., “Age, Period, and Cohort Trends in Mood Disorder Indicators and Suicide-Related Outcomes in a Nationally Representative Dataset, 2005–2017,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 128, no. 3 (2019): 185–99, https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/abn-abn0000410.pdf; and Danielle L. Clark, Jean L. Raphael, and Amy L. McGuire, “HEADS: Social Media Screening in Adolescent Primary Care,” Pediatrics Perspectives 141, no. 6 (June 2018), https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/141/6/e20173655.
- Jamie Ballard, “Millennials Are the Loneliest Generation,” YouGov, July 30, 2019, https://today.yougov.com/topics/lifestyle/articles-reports/2019/07/30/loneliness-friendship-new-friends-poll-survey.
- Michael J. Rosenfeld and Reuben J. Thomas, “Searching for a Mate: The Rise of the Internet as a Social Intermediary,” American Sociological Review 77, no. 4 (2012): 523–47, https://web.stanford.edu/~mrosenfe/Rosenfeld_How_Couples_Meet_Working_Paper.pdf.
- W. Bradford Wilcox and Wendy Wang, The Marriage Divide: How and Why Working-Class Families Are More Fragile Today, American Enterprise Institute, Opportunity America, and Brookings Institution, September 25, 2017, https://www.aei.org/research-products/report/the-marriage-divide-how-and-why-working-class-families-are-more-fragile-today.
- Princeton University, “About the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study,” https://fragilefamilies.princeton.edu/about.
- Sara McLanahan, “Family Instability and Complexity after a Nonmarital Birth: Outcomes for Children in Fragile Families” (working paper, Princeton University, Center for Research on Child Wellbeing, Princeton, NJ, May 22, 2009), https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download;jsessionid=5AAD424F8789269CB82A69A17A0CB437?doi=10.1.1.600.197&rep=rep1&type=pdf.
- Karen Benjamin Guzzo, “New Partners, More Kids: Multiple-Partner Fertility in the United States,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 654, no. 1 (2014): 66–86, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4182921/#!po=2.33645; and Princeton University, “About the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study.”
- Mindy E. Scott et al., “Multiple Partner Fertility Among Unmarried Nonresident Fathers,” in Handbook of Father Involvement: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, ed. Natasha Cabrera and Catherine Tamis-LeMonda (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2013), 97–115.
- W. Bradford Wilcox, “The Marriage Divide, Marriage Penalties, and United States Welfare Policy,” US Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Office of Family Assistance, September 10, 2020, https://www.aei.org/research-products/report/the-marriage-divide-marriage-penalties-and-united-states-welfare-policy.
- Nicholas Zill, “How Family Transitions Affect Students’ Achievement,” Institute for Family Studies, October 29, 2015, https://ifstudies.org/ifs-admin/resources/how-family-transitions-affect-students-achievement-family-studiesfamily-studies-1.pdf.
- W. Bradford Wilcox and Wendy Wang, “The Millennial Success Sequence: Marriage, Kids, and the ‘Success Sequence’ Among Young Adults,” American Enterprise Institute and Institute for Family Studies, June 14, 2017, https://www.aei.org/research-products/working-paper/millennials-and-the-success-sequence-how-do-education-work-and-marriage-affect-poverty-and-financial-success-among-millennials; and Sean Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens (New York: Touchstone Books, 1998).
- Meta, “Day 1 of F8 2019: Building New Products and Features for a Privacy-Focused Social Platform,” April 30, 2019, https://newsroom.fb.com/news/2019/04/f8-2019-day-1.
- Arielle Pardes, “Flirty or Friendzone? New AI Scans Your Texts for True Love,” Wired, September 16, 2019, https://www.wired.com/story/ai-apps-texting-flirting-romance.
- Tyler Cowen, “The Marriages of Power Couples Reinforce Income Inequality,” New York Times, December 24, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/27/upshot/marriages-of-power-couples-reinforce-income-inequality.html.
- Rosenfeld, Thomas, and Hausen, “Disintermediating Your Friends.”