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Adam Fondren, Deseret News
Nate (left) and Shelby Astle, both being college students, sit down to do homework before dinner in their apartment in Provo on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017. Together, Nate and Shelby try to call attention to the affect of pornography on relationships.

SALT LAKE CITY — There's nothing new about couples needing relationship advice or even professional help. But many experts say today's digital natives — young adults who grew up immersed in the internet — are facing a unique set of challenges in the areas of dating and mating.

Not only are they constantly connected to the internet, but they're surrounded by pornographic images and airbrushed presentations of the human body, and facing increasing pressure to present flawless personas on social media.

Each digital experience poses an underlying challenge to personal honesty, vulnerability and connection — bedrock traits of any good relationship, say experts, many of whom will speak at the upcoming Society for Advancement of Sexual Health conference in Salt Lake City.

SASH's first-ever community day, open to the public, begins Friday evening, Oct. 6 with a screening of the documentary, "Addicted to Porn: Chasing the Cardboard Butterfly" and continues Saturday morning, Oct. 7, with classes and lectures.

"(Sexual health in a digital world) is a trendy topic right now," said Jackie Pack, licensed clinical social worker and owner of Healing Paths in Bountiful and a member of the planning committee for this year's conference. "But I don't know that it's ever really going to go away. The way that digital technology evolves, it's always new. This could be a topic that (we) could cover every year."

Technology tether

In previous generations, high school was a learning ground for relationships as well as geometry. Kids passed notes, talked at lockers and sat by each other at lunch, then perhaps progressed to holding hands or going to the movies, hoping for a good night kiss at the door.

"We negotiated our way to sex and romance through relationships," says Robert Weiss, therapist, author and expert on infidelity and porn, sex and love addiction. "The intricacies of relationships and sexual intimacy seems to be a delayed developmental task in young people. They're not learning it when we learned it."

Rather than interacting in person, millennials, young adults ages 18 to 34, are the first generation to have grown up with the Internet, smart phones and texting instead of talking.

Shelby Astle prepare a spaghetti squash for dinner in their apartment in Provo on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017. Together with her husband Nate, she tries to call attention to the affect of pornography on relationships. | Adam Fondren, Deseret News

A Nielsen study from 2010 found that young adults ages 18-24 send and receive around 1,630 texts a month, while teens ages 13 to 17 communicate through more than 3,300 texts each month.

Without face-to-face skills, required human interactions can often cause severe social anxiety — not just for pre-pubescent 14-year-old teens, but for young adults in their mid 20s, says Rachel Hoffman, a therapist at the Long Island Institute of Sex Therapy and author of the forthcoming book: "Dating and Mating in a Techno-Driven World."

Hoffman has couples come into her office because they're frustrated by a lack of intimacy and she'll ask them about their post-work routine.

They'll mention cooking and eating dinner, all the while checking e-mail and perusing social media. Hoffman isn't anti-tech, but the problem is people don’t see the addiction until it’s too late, and then “intimacy is completely gone,” she says.

"We're losing the whole world of interpersonal connection, face-to-face communication," she said. "I obviously think that’s extrmeley important in terms of maintaining relationships."

She encourages couples to designate nights where they put their phones away for the evening and focus on each other. And parents need to ensure that their kids have plenty of real-time experiences and face-to-face interactions without phones or technology.

Despite technology challenges, Weiss isn't convinced that an entire generation is doomed to relational failure. He knows older generations may be leery of new technology, but believes most young adults will adapt and be just fine.

However, having been a therapist for decades, Weiss also knows that the Internet, in particular Internet pornography, has created some serious problems for a subset of young adults.

The constant stream of sexualized images can dampen healthy relationships because individuals become more interested in the pixels on the screen than the person in front of them, and thanks to brain chemistry, often find themselves seeking out greater rushes of dopamine than one real-life partner can provide.

Shelby (left) and Nate Astle prepare a spaghetti squash for dinner in their apartment in Provo on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017. Together, Nate and Shelby try to call attention to the affect of pornography on relationships. | Adam Fondren, Deseret News

Pornography's impact

Nate Astle was 13 when he first saw pornography, and has been struggling for years to stop seeking it out.

However, when he began dating his now-wife, Shelby, whom he’d known since Mrs. Curtis' 3rd grade class in Las Vegas, Nev., he knew he had to say something about this unhealthy habit he was desperate to break.

Nate remembers feeling scared, worried he had lost the ability to establish healthy relationships and fearful that pornography would always be a dark shadow to "destroy my virtue and my potential as a mate," he said, adding that such thoughts are "total baloney."

Nate (left) and Shelby Astle go on their Facebook page and respond to posts from people with similar problems before dinner in their apartment in Provo on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017. | Adam Fondren, Deseret News

He told Shelby, who took it surprisingly well, having recently looked into the science of addiction and the issue of pornography, after some other male friends told her of their struggles. She soon realized it was a more pervasive problem than she thought.

One study found that 87 percent of college-age young men and 31 percent of young women reported use pornography to some degree. Nearly half of the young men surveyed reported using it once a week and one in five young men said they viewed it daily or every other day.

Though surprised at Nate’s confession — "good guys struggle with this?" — she reassured him it was something they could work through together, and for the last two years they have.

"If we can talk about something as scary as porn," she said, "I think it’s helped our relationship become stronger, because we’re talking about it and helping each other go through hard things.

Nate (left) and Shelby Astle go on their Facebook page and respond to posts from people with similar problems before dinner in their apartment in Provo on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017. | Adam Fondren, Deseret News

"I don't wish anyone would have that in their relationship," she continued, "but it has helped us come closer together and be more open."

While those are difficult conversations, they're exactly the type of conversations young adults need to be having, says Vauna Davis, founder of Reach10, a nonprofit group focused on preparing the next generation of leaders to speak out against the shame, silence and fear associated with pornography, and instead instill people with courage, compassion and connection.

The group offers a resource-filled website with talking points and how-to guides to help young adults know when to bring up the topic of pornography in relationships and what to say.

Reach10 also wants to spread the message that someone's pornography use doesn't define them, and that when someone is truly in recovery, pornography doesn't have to be a relationship killer.

"The experience of overcoming porn use is actually a chance to really grow and become stronger than before," said Davis. "(People in recovery) gain amazing qualities, like being humble, teachable, honest, compassionate, which are all good things for a relationship."

A picture of Nate (left) and Shelby Astle in their apartment in Provo on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017. Together, Nate and Shelby try to call attention to the affect of pornography on relationships. | Adam Fondren, Deseret News

Instagram veneer

Yet even if young adults aren't struggling with a pornography habit, there's enough on social media to keep them envious and unhappy.

For many millennials, a scroll through their Instagram or Facebook accounts leaves them feeling like their lives don’t measure up to the travel, partying, accomplishments or happiness of their peers.

"Likes" on Facebook and Instagram have become a sort of social currency for self worth, says Rachel Denton, a 25-year-old graduate student at the University of Utah and anti-pornography activist.

Thus, she curates an online persona of someone she knows will be accepted. The Rachel who's always happy, exciting and doing awesome things like her humanitarian trip to Africa, or hanging out with friends at a cool party — not the Rachel who studies in her kitchen or watches Netflix in her pajamas.

As she explains why she does what she does, she sounds somewhat disappointed by the fact that society requires her to pretend that she's happy all the time, with no vulnerabilities and no issues — hardly a healthy environment in which to develop meaningful relationships.

And Rachel's not alone.

Donna Freitas interviewed hundreds of college students across the country for her book, "The Happiness Effect: How Social Media is Driving a Generation to Appear Perfect at Any Cost," and found that thanks to well-intentioned advice from parents, teachers and coaches to "be careful of what you post online," students have come to believe that "it's more important for them to appear happy than to actually be happy," she said.

Freitas said many students were upset by the difference between their friends and their friends' online portrayals — even though they were all doing the same thing on their own social media platforms.

And that's why the vast majority of students told Freitas they like social media for making plans and keeping in touch with friends far away, but so much of it is "toxic to their relationships," and many even plan "sabbaticals" from Facebook or Instagram.

"I feel like (college students) are really working hard to navigate this difficult thing and I'm not sure we've figured out how best to help them," Freitas said. "All the things that people are afraid of (with young adults), I didn't really find those among the students, they're just yearning for conversation and connection."