How Well Online Dating Works, According To Someone Who Has Been Studying It For Years
I was seated at a bar a few months back, minding my own business, when the woman next to me did something weird. She took out her phone, hid it beneath the counter, and launched the online dating app Tinder, surrounded by potential companions. Depending on which direction she wiped, images of males appeared and then vanished on her screen to the left and right. Not individually, but on behalf of everyone at the bar, I felt a tremendous sense of rejection. Instead of mingling with the people around her, she went online to look for a partner.
I began to wonder if this was what online dating had done to us. Is it ushering in a new era in which individuals consciously shun face-to-face contact? Others, of course, have been concerned about similar issues in the past. However, the concern that internet dating is altering us as a society, that it is instilling unhealthy habits and preferences that aren’t in our best interests, is fueled more by paranoia than by reality.
Michael Rosenfeld, a sociologist at Stanford who has been conducting a long-running study of online dating, told me the other day, “There are a lot of theories out there about how online dating is bad for us.” “And, for the most part, they’re unfounded.”
Rosenfeld, who has been keeping tabs on the dating lives of more than 3,000 people, has gleaned many insights about the growing role of apps like Tinder. They are important today — roughly one of every four straight couples now meet on the Internet. (It’s closer to two out of every three for gay couples.) The apps have been a huge hit, and in ways that many people didn’t expect.
In reality, online dating has shown to be more valuable — both to individuals and to society — than the traditional channels it has replaced on multiple levels.
I chatted with Rosenfeld to learn more about his research, to learn how the rise of online dating is defining modern love, and to discuss the most common myths about online dating. For length and clarity, the interview has been modified.
You’ve got one of the most interesting data sets on modern romance. What have you discovered about today’s dating habits?
One of the first things you should know about dating — or, more accurately, courtship customs, since not everyone refers to it as dating — is that the average age of marriage in the United States has risen considerably over time. People used to marry in their early twenties, which meant that most dating and courtship took place with the purpose of being married right away. And it is no longer the way young people live. The average age of first marriage has risen to late twenties, and more people in their 30s and even 40s are opting out of marriage.
People can now meet more possible companions than they might at work or in their area thanks to the rise of phone apps and online dating services. It makes it easy for someone looking for a specific type of mate to find what they’re looking for. It also benefits app users by allowing them to maintain a regular routine of encounters that do not have to lead to relationships. These are absolutely characteristics of modern romanticism, in my opinion.
One of the things you discovered during your investigation is how quickly online dating has grown. This is something that not everyone agrees is a good thing. Why are so many people doubtful?
The fear of internet dating stems from views that say having too much option is unhealthy for you. The concept is that if you have too many options, it will be difficult to choose one, and that having too many options is demotivating. We see this in consumer goods – if there are too many types of jam at the shop, for example, you may feel it’s just too hard to explore the jam aisle, and you may believe it’s not worth it to settle down with just one jam.
What do you think?
Even if that argument is true for something like jam, I don’t believe it applies to dating. In fact, I don’t observe any negative consequences for those who find partners online in my research. People who meet their partners online aren’t more likely to break up, and their relationships aren’t more transient. It doesn’t matter how you meet the other person once you’re in a relationship with them. Sure, there are online dating sites for hookups, but there are also dating sites for people looking for long-term partnerships.