February 8, 2012

Lonely Hearts, Go Online

Internet dating is now one of the top methods for finding love. But whether the pros outweigh the cons is another story.

For many years, online dating had a bit of a stigma attached to it. Its likeness to personal ads may have been a little too close for comfort, and Americans were hesitant to embrace it. Now, a new study commissioned by the American Psychological Association, shows that it’s shed that stigma, and is forging ahead as a central method for finding love. But there are some pitfalls that come with the practice.

Although Internet dating can be a helpful tool for some people, the authors caution that there are some drawbacks to the online dating world.

"The Internet holds great promise for helping adults form healthy and supportive romantic partnerships, and those relationships are one of the best predictors of emotional and physical health," says coauthor Harry Reis, in a university news release. The other options out there aren’t particularly useful, he added, especially after we enter the adult years, when there is no school or college to help us meet new people.

Approximately 25 million unique users around the globe visited online dating sites in the month of April 2011 alone, according to the study. Internet dating has become the second most-used method of dating, barring only meeting new people through friends. Interestingly, men look at about three times as many dating profiles as women, and are 40% more likely to contact another person than women are.

To give some comparison, in the 1990s, only about 1% of people used personal ads to meet other singles. By 2005, about 37% of single people had tried online dating. In 2007-2009, about 22% of heterosexual people had found their significant others through the Internet (this number was about 61% for homosexual couples).

Although Internet dating can be a helpful tool for some people, the authors caution that there are some drawbacks to the online dating world. For one thing, emailing for a long period of time before meeting in person can create unrealistic expectations of what the personal will actually be like.

Even more, the dating sites themselves can promote a sense of “destiny” or that one’s “soulmate” is out there somewhere. These types of suggestions can actually be damaging, since people who believe that relationships are meant to be – or not to be – are more likely “to become vengeful in response to partner aggression when they feel insecure in the relationship,” and to flee the relationship when problems arise.

Another drawback to the process is that the necessary sifting through online dating profiles can create a shopper’s mentality, whereby good people may be overlooked, in favor of more superficially appealing prospects.

Finally, the study found no evidence that the algorithms the sites use to make matches had been evaluated independently in peer-review journals (or anywhere else). So sites claiming “science-based” approaches to match-making don’t seem to have science behind them at all, particularly since they guard heavily the research they conduct themselves, and there’s no telling what it might consist of.

If you’re interested in online dating, it might be worth a try – but be sure to keep in mind the drawbacks that may come with the territory.

Harry Reis is a researcher at the University of Rochester, and published his study in the February issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

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