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March 1, 2012

Internet Leads to More Dates, But Not More Relationships

Professor Reuben J. Thomas 

Dr. Reuben J. Thomas, assistant professor of sociology.

Online Dating Lets People ‘Take Control’ of Romantic Lives, Says CCNY Sociologist Reuben Thomas

Thanks to online dating, it is easier than ever for single people to avoid spending Saturday nights alone. However, the Internet hookups aren’t necessarily leading to more lasting relationships, according to City College of New York sociologist Reuben Thomas. Dr. Thomas and a colleague from Stanford University, Dr. Michael J. Rosenfeld, produced groundbreaking research that revealed that today one in five couples meet on line.

“The advantage of online dating is that it makes more efficient use of time for people with busy lives,” said Dr. Thomas, an assistant professor of sociology. “It allows for active search, kind of like shopping, and lets people take control of their romantic lives.”

So far, however, there is no data suggesting relationships that start online fare better or worse than those begun in other settings.  “There is not a lot of difference in how people meet and how relationships work out,” he said.  “Despite the great increase in couples meeting online, the overall rate of male-female couples in the United States hasn’t really changed.”

When Professors Thomas and Rosenfeld began their research in 2009, they were not focused on measuring online dating. “We wanted to know where couples came from and where families came from: how people wound up spending their lives together and getting married,” Professor Thomas explained.  The researchers hoped their findings would offer an explanation for the prevalence of segregation and homogeny in American society, i.e. people marrying people like themselves.

“At the time, there was a real lack of good, detailed information from a sample that could represent the entire nation on how they met their partners,” Professor Thomas recalled. The big takeaway from the research was that more than one in five couples that had met in the prior five years had met in some way through the Internet.

“We knew online dating was increasing and was becoming a norm in a quick amount of time, but you don’t really know how pervasive it is until you do research on a national level,” Professor Thomas said.

Using public channels such as classified ads, telephone party lines and computer dating to find romance predates the Internet. However, these modes never achieved the respectability that online dating enjoys today, he pointed out.

That respectability did not come overnight. “The idea of putting up your photo and saying you are looking for a partner where everyone can see it is still embarrassing to some people,” Professor Thomas said. “They see it as an admission that they can’t find a partner.”

Such attitudes are beginning to change, in part, because many singles nowadays have a thin market for prospective partners.  That is especially true among singles in their 30s or 40s or members of subcultures.  “Online dating enables these people to search a wide variety of people they might not meet otherwise, and it does not involve approaching strangers in public places, such as bars,” he added.

Niche dating sites have proven popular. As an example, Professor Thomas sites J-Date, which has been a boon to the Jewish community.  There are born-again Christian dating sites, as well.  “Even small subcultures like Goths can find each other through special web sites,” he noted.

However, same-sex couples meet online more than anyone else, said Professor Thomas. “Unless they are living in a large city, gays and lesbians don’t encounter many appropriate mates.  This is particularly true among gay men and women living in rural states, where they often lead very private lives and the fear of bigotry is very real.”

The group that could most benefit from online dating, he added, is older women. Because women outlive men and there is a double standard that makes it easier for men to date younger women, the proportion of women in relationships declines, as they get older, while it remains stable for men, he explained.  “They could benefit from access to a wider pool of potential mates, however, many older women do not feel comfortable with technology.”

Professor Thomas said he expects online dating will continue to grow. “There is no clear other way of meeting people on the horizon.”

One technology that could supersede it, however, is mobile telephone applications based on proximity. A user could see who in the vicinity is enrolled with a service and meets their eligibility criteria. “If other users are in a public place you could decide from afar whether you want to meet any of them,” he noted.

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