By Leanne Italie, Associated Press Writer
In a not-so-secret double life, Jennifer Morrison is simply "Jennifer," platonic friend for hire.
The reservation-taker at a popular Las Vegas restaurant has accepted cash to show an introverted, out-of-town computer programmer around the Pinball Hall of Fame and the Bellagio's famous dancing fountains.
A bored grandmother visiting family from the Midwest hired her for an afternoon movie. A stay-at-home mom who was new to the area paid her to come on over to do some scrapbooking. Morrison, 31, met a traveling businessman at the airport with a folder of research he requested on things to do and helped him rent a car.
It's all because of a new arrival to the Web-fueled, rent-an-everything revolution — Rentafriend.com.
"You look at a site like this and think, 'Oh, they must all be escorts or it's a dating site or something,'" said Morrison, a mother of a 2-year-old who signed on with the blessing of her husband. "When I first saw it I had mixed feelings about it. I thought it was kind of sad that people have to do this."
While Morrison is happy to meet new people and make a little extra money, charging $20 to $30 an hour, she's not the only one to think lonely thoughts about the 7-month-old service modeled on similar, hugely successful sites in Japan and elsewhere in Asia.
In a world where friend is a verb and you may never meet some of yours from Facebook in real life, where research indicates chronic loneliness can lead to depression, suicide, high blood pressure and viral infections, where roughly 20% of all people — 60 million in the United States alone — say they feel lonely at any given moment, is renting a friend a solution or stopgap?
"The real question is, is it solving anyone's problems? My first reaction was to roll my eyes, but it may in fact help people meet others and get back into circulation. If it's used as a substitute for meaningful face-to-face relationships, it's not going to work," said John T. Cacioppo, a social neuroscience researcher and co-author of "Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Interaction."