Valparaiso University freshman John MacNeil said he and his girlfriend already considered themselves a couple before they went out alone on their first date.
While that might sound strange to baby boomers or even some who are younger, it has become the norm for young people to carry out the ritual of dating while safely part of a group rather than one-on-one, said Scott Hall, a family studies professor at Ball State University.
"That seems really intimidating to a lot of students or young adults," Hall said of the traditional model of dating.
The group approach allows young people to socialize, date and yes, even "hook up," while avoiding moving too quickly or getting too serious, he said.
This feeds into a more long-term trend of young people to putting off marriage in order to focus on building careers and other aspects of their lives, Hall said.
According to U.S. Census data, the average age for marriage is 28 for men and 26 for women, he said. This is a jump from the early 1950s, when it was 22 for men and 20 for women.
Internet dating, long-distance relationships and more casual sexual encounters allow young people to explore options outside of marriage, Hall said. More young people are taking part in group dates or simply spending time together without formal commitments instead of the more traditional approach of spending time together and attempting to impress parents.
At 19, MacNeil said social media puts him in near-constant contact with his closest friends whether at school or at home in Crown Point, which makes it tough and "kind of weird" at times being alone with someone.
MacNeil's 20-year-old sister, Eryn, who is a junior at Valparaiso University, said she too prefers the group dating approach.
"I think it's a lot easier to meet people," she said.
She said there is less pressure in getting to know someone in a group setting. If a mutual attraction develops after hanging out for a while in a group, then the two people can choose to spend time alone together, she said.
Neither Eryn nor her brother thought online dating sites are used very frequently by their peers, yet acknowledged they are in college where there is no shortage of eligible people around.
Where the Internet does play a role in dating, at least for Eryn and her female friends, is in researching someone of interest. She said when she or a friend is attracted to someone, they often rush back home to look up the person on Facebook to see what type of posts they have made and to look for other clues.
"You do the whole decoding of Facebook," she said.
Texting is another low pressure way to get to know someone.
"It's less committal, and it's less pressure on you to be alone," Eryn said.
Hall believes today's young adults have more experiences than they would have had a generation or two ago, which grants them more time to select a partner. He wondered what impact this approach will have on the young people's ability to adjust to monogamy after years of pursuing their individual interests.
"Marriage happens today after young people have built up their careers and have lived independently for a time," he said. "Young people have many goals they want to accomplish before settling down and starting a family."