October 21, 2013

Online Dating & Relationships

Part 1: Introduction

For as long as romantic relationships have existed, people have sought assistance in meeting potential partners using whatever options were at their disposal. Matchmaking and arranged marriages have existed for centuries, and printed personal ads are nearly as old as the newspaper industry itself. More recently, technological developments from the VCR to the (pre-internet era) personal computer have been enlisted, with varying degrees of success, in an effort to connect people with romantic partners.1

In the mid-1990’s, online dating sites such as Match.com marked the commercial internet’s first foray into dating and relationships. As these sites have evolved in the ensuing years, they have typically assumed one of two forms. Some offer a “personal ads” format, in which users create their own profile and browse the profiles of others on their own (Match.com, OkCupid, and PlentyofFish are common examples of this type of service). Others take on a more active matchmaking role, in which computer algorithms select pre-screened matches for users based on various criteria (eHarmony is the most well-known of these “algorithmic” matching services). More recently, a third model has emerged in the form of cell phone dating apps.

The rise of tech-enabled dating help has been one of the most striking developments of the digital era, and these alternative ways of meeting and mating have arisen at a time of fundamental change in the structure of marriage and divorce in America. The number of Americans getting married has been steadily declining, and today a record-low 51% of the public is currently married (in 1960, 72% of all adults 18 and older were married). Americans are also waiting until later in life to get married, and other living arrangements—such as cohabitation, single person households, and single parenthood—have grown more common in recent decades. At the same time, marriage still holds wide appeal for those who have not tied the knot. Some 61% of men and women who have never married say they would like to get married eventually, while just 12% say they definitely do not want to marry.

Research into whether online dating actually produces more successful relationships or romantic outcomes than conventional (offline) dating is generally inconclusive, although these sites clearly offer a qualitatively different experience compared with traditional dating. Some of these differences include: the ability to search from a deep pool of potential partners outside of one’s existing social networks; the ability to communicate online or via email prior to arranging for a face-to-face interaction; and matching algorithms that allow users to filter potential partners based on pre-existing criteria.2 Other research has indicated that the efficiency of online dating and the size of the potential dating pool compared with traditional methods make the process especially useful for people (such as gays and lesbians, or middle aged heterosexuals) who may have limited options for meeting people within their immediate geographic area or social circle.3 Still others have speculated that the rise of online dating has encouraged young adults, especially men, to forego marriage because they can always find women to date and that lowers their interest in committing to long term relationships.4

The report that follows is based on survey data from the Pew Research Center’s second national telephone survey of online dating. The Center last conducted a detailed survey of the internet’s impact on dating and relationships in 2005, and a primary goal of this study is to update key trends on the internet and dating—such as the overall prevalence of online dating, how attitudes towards online dating have changed over time, and whether or not more people are meeting online than in the past. At the same time, the broader technological environment has changed dramatically since our last survey on this subject, and this has greatly impacted the ways in which people can seek out, research, meet, and interact with potential partners.

The first change involves mobile technologies, particularly smartphones. When we conducted our first study of online dating, the release of the iPhone was still two years in the future. Today more than half of all American adults are smartphone owners, and dating—like many other aspects of modern life—is increasingly conducted on the go. The online dating sites that we studied in 2005 continue to exist and play a prominent role, but are now supplemented by mobile apps from which users can do everything from browsing profiles to setting up real-time dates from the comfort of their smartphones. This study incorporates these dating apps into our definition of an “online dating user,” and also examines the ways in which cell phones are becoming intertwined in the broader dating environment.

The second major change involves the widespread adoption of social networking sites. In 2005, MySpace was the dominant player in the social networking field, Facebook was not yet open to the entire public, and Twitter did not exist. Today roughly three-quarters of online adults use sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and the impact of these online social networks on the dating process is potentially profound. This study looks at the ways in which online social networks provide new avenues for meeting “friends of friends” or for researching potential partners before meeting them in person, as well as some of the ways in which awkwardness or “drama” can develop in these highly public venues.

Chapter One of this report looks specifically at online dating sites and dating apps. Chapter Two looks more broadly at the online dating environment, and updates certain key trends from our 2005 study—such as how many relationships begin online, or how many people have flirted with someone online. And Chapter Three examines how people are using social networking sites and cell phones to navigate the world of dating and relationships.

A note on relationship status groups analyzed in this report

Throughout this report, we will refer to several different types of Americans based on their current relationship status and whether or not they are actively seeking a partner at the moment. In particular, much of the analysis will focus on one or more the following groups:

  • Group #1, “Married or in a committed relationship for ten years or less” – This group includes people who are either married, living with a partner, or in some other type of committed romantic relationship, and who have been in their current relationship for ten years or less. It makes up 28% of the total adult population.
  • Group #2, “Married or in a committed relationship for more than ten years” – Similar to group one, but includes people who have been in their current relationship for more than ten years. It makes up 38% of the total adult population.
  • Group #3, “Single and looking” – This group includes people who are not married or in a relationship, but are currently looking for a romantic partner. It makes up 7% of the total adult population.
  • Group #4, “Single but not looking” – This group includes people who are not married or in a relationship, but are not currently looking for a romantic partner. It makes up 28% of the total adult population.

Additional demographic details of each group can be found in the Appendix at the end of this report.

A large portion of the behaviors and attitudes we examined in this survey have broad applicability to adults of all kinds, and as a result were asked of everyone regardless of their relationship status. For other dating-related activities, we focused on a narrower subset of the population: specifically, those who are “single and looking” (Group 3 above) and those who have been in a committed relationship for ten years or less (Group 1 above). Throughout this report, we will refer to these two groups collectively as people with recent dating experience.

For those questions asked only of those with recent dating experience, we excluded people in longer-term relationships because technology was almost by definition not part of their dating lives. Someone who has been married since the early 1990s has obviously not broken up with someone via text messaging, for example. On the other hand, we excluded people in the “single but not looking” category in an effort to be sensitive to our survey respondents. Around half of this group is widowed, divorced, or separated, and we did not wish to subject those individuals to undue stress or force them to rehash bad relationship experiences.

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Eli Finkel at Northwestern University, Michael Rosenfeld at Stanford University, Lauren Scissors at Northwestern University, and Susan Sprecher at Illinois State University for generously contributing their time and expertise during the development of this survey.

  1. numoffset=”2″ Finkel, E., Eastwick, P., Karney, B., Reis, H., and Sprecher, S., “Online Dating: A Critical Analysis From the Perspective of Psychological Science,” Psychological Science in the Public Interest, January 2012, vol. 13. Available at http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/publications/journals/pspi/online-dating.html
  2. Ibid.
  3. Rosenfeld, M., and Thomas, R., “Searching For a Mate: The Rise of the Internet as a Social Intermediary,” American Sociological Review, 77(4): 523:547. Available at http://www.stanford.edu/~mrosenfe/Rosenfeld_How_Couples_Meet_Working_Paper.pdf
  4. Dan Slater, “A Million First Dates,” The Atlantic, January 2, 2013. Available at: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/01/a-million-first-dates/309195/