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Like everything else, dating has moved online in recent years through a combination of organized dating services and incidental meetings (the Ars forums have enabled a number of matches). Now, a new survey of American households shows just how important this phenomenon has become: since 2005, a third of marriages were the result of online meetings, with nearly half of those coming through online dating services. The good news? Fewer relationships that started online ended up in divorce, and people were generally more satisfied with the ones that survived.
The numbers come from a survey sponsored by eHarmony, a dating site that frequently uses its advertisements to suggest that it makes matches based on psychologically validated personality profiles. As revealed in the conflict of interest statement, one of the researchers involved in the new study is a scientific advisor to eHarmony. But the researchers got the dating company to allow them to publish their survey analysis no matter what it showed, and the group hired an outside statistician to validate the work.
Overall, the survey included more than 19,000 people who had married between 2005 and 2012. Although it was performed online, the demographics of those who responded suggest it is broadly representative of the US population.
All told, about a third of the marriages that occurred during that period arose from relationships that started online. A total of 45 percent of these came from online dating sites, 20 percent occurred through social networks, and another 10 percent came from chat rooms. Things like e-mail, blogs, and instant messaging all accounted for less than five percent of the relationships (online gaming came in at 3.6 percent). The real world was even more heavily fragmented: work and mutual friends accounted for 20 percent each of the introductions; school and social gatherings came in at around 10 percent each.
Males and Hispanics are more likely to meet someone online. Online success stories are more likely to occur with older individuals (30-50) who are currently working and financially secure. There is a demographic shift in the medium used, of course. Older people are more likely to use e-mail, while younger people were more likely to meet via social networks or in virtual worlds.
Is all this meeting online distorting our social fabric? Not if this survey is to be believed. Less than six percent of the marriages that started online ended up in divorce or separation; for real-world meetings, that figure was more than 7.5 percent. Hispanics and Asians experienced even greater benefits from online meetings. (Oddly, both Catholics and Atheists also saw a boost in marital stability if they met online.) Within the marriages that were still in existence, the marital satisfaction was higher among those who met online. Both these effects shrank a bit when demographics were controlled for, but they remained significant.
The survey also provided some hints about what to avoid if you want to experience higher marital satisfaction. For real-world relationships, these include blind dates, bars, and meeting your future spouse through work. If it's online, stay away from chat rooms and virtual worlds.
Why might meeting online have a significant effect? The authors can't rule out that there's something specific to the personalities of those who choose to set up dates online. But they note that past studies have shown that just about everyone who communicates online is more willing to disclose things about themselves, which may help people evaluate their potential partners. In addition, they are undoubtedly able to choose from a larger group of potential partners than they're likely to meet through work or friends.
In the end, the survey told the company that paid for it, eHarmony, that it both is and isn't anything special. It's special in terms of size: it and Match.com combined account for half of the marriages that resulted from dating sites. The next closest competitor, Yahoo, only accounts for seven percent of the market. But it's not especially good at setting up lasting relationships. The different sites initially had slight differences in how well they generated marriages, but those differences vanished once demographic factors were controlled for. So at least as far as this survey is concerned, all dating sites are pretty much the same. And they're all better than a chat room.
PNAS, 2013. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1222447110 (About DOIs).