Another day, another moral panic over The Kids and their sexy, promiscuous online dating.
This latest bout comes courtesy Vanity Fair, which this week published a lengthy obituary for traditional courtship — centered, largely, on the hook-up app Tinder.
Per Nancy Jo Sales, the Old who wrote the piece, Tinder and its ilk have prompted a sexual revolution on a scale we haven’t seen since roughly 10,000 B.C. (It “sucks,” to use the term of a swipe-happy gentleman she quotes early in the story.) Per Tinder, which indulged in a very public Twitter meltdown Tuesday night, apps like it are basically saving the world and the kids are 110 percent alright.
How do you reconcile such diametrically opposite claims? You don’t, probably. But lucky for us, there’s a huge and growing body of research dedicated to online dating, social change, courtship and promiscuity — and amidst the lot of them, there’s a differing conclusion for just about everybody.
Think online dating is amazing? The University of Chicago has your back.
Already convinced, as researchers say Sales was, that we’re living through some kind of apocalypse? Studies from the University of Michigan will gladly “prove” it.
The debate over the net social value (or harm!) of online dating is over-complicated for just this reason: There are so many studies, using so many different methodologies (… and getting funding from so many deeply invested companies), that it’s only too easy to cherry-pick one finding or statistic and run really, really far with it.
So we decided to look at the research in all its messy, contradicting totality: Here’s every major study we could find about the wider social impacts of online dating. You decide for yourself if Tinder is ruining relationships … or, you know, the exact opposite.
2012: “Searching for a Mate: The Rise of the Internet as a Social Intermediary”
(Corresponding author: Michael J. Rosenfeld, Stanford University)
In an analysis of data from a nationally representative survey of more than 4,000 U.S. adults, Rosenfeld concludes that the Internet is beginning to displace old-school meeting places, like schools and churches, as a place for romantic introductions. “If one believes that the health of society depends on the strength of the local traditional institutions of family, church, primary school, and neighborhood,” he writes, “then one might be reasonably concerned about the partial displacement of those traditional institutions by the Internet.”
But aside from that, the news is all good: Rosenfeld found no differences in relationship quality or strength between couples who met online and couples who met off. He also found that online dating had been a huge boon to people in “thin dating markets” — think LGBT daters or older women — and hypothesized that marriage and partnership rates of Americans would actually rise as more of these people got online.
2012: “Online Dating: A Critical Analysis from the Perspective of Psychological Science”
(Corresponding author: Eli J. Finkel, Northwestern University)
Finkel et al’s (very lengthy) review of several top dating sites and the literature on them is basically a wash for all involves: Most sites are pretty bad, they conclude, in the sense that their matching algorithms don’t actually work. In spite of that, though, online dating doesn’t hurt daters or their prospects — in fact, it helps them by opening up the dating pool.
“Online dating offers access to potential partners whom people would be unlikely to meet through other avenues,” the paper concludes, “and this access yields new romantic possibilities.”
2013: “The Impact of Internet Diffusion on Marriage Rates: Evidence from the Broadband Market”
(Andriana Bellou, University of Montreal)
Bellou’s research is far less conclusive than some of the other work on this list; in a discussion paper published by the Institute for the Study of Labor, she basically charts Internet adoption rates over time against marriage rates to see if there are any patterns. There are, it turns out: Bellou concludes that “Internet expansion is associated with increased marriage rates” among 20-somethings, and hypothesizes that the relationship is causal — in other words, that greater access to online dating, online social networks and other means of communicating with strangers directly causes people to pair up.
As Brad Plumer observed at the time, of course, this doesn’t definitively prove a casual relationship; it’s still very possible that the two things just tend to go hand-in-hand, and don’t contribute to each other.
2013: Marital Satisfaction and Breakups Differ Across Online and Offline Meeting Venues”
(Corresponding author: John Cacioppo, University of Chicago)
In a widely quoted study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences., Cacioppo surveyed a nationally representative sample of more than 19,000 married people … and concluded that online dating was unequivocally a really good thing. Per his research, married couples who met online were happier (5.64 points on a satisfaction survey, versus 5.48) and less likely to get divorced (6 percent, versus 7.6).
Notably, this study only looked at married couples, so it doesn’t address this core anxiety that people are forsaking relationships to just hook up. It was also sponsored by online dating behemoth eHarmony, for whom Cacioppo is an advisor, though independent statisticians reviewed the work prior to publication.
2013: “A New Standard of Sexual Behavior? Are Claims Associated with the ‘Hookup Culture’ Supported by Nationally Representative Data?”
(Corresponding author: Martin Monto, University of Portland)
This is not, strictly speaking, a paper about online dating. In fact, Monto doesn’t really discuss online dating at all! But that omission is what makes his work on hookup culture so very relevant to our interests here: See, in a nationally representative sample of more than 1,800 18- to 25-year-olds, Monto found that in general, today’s sex-crazed Tinder-swiping youth aren’t substantially more promiscuous than past generations were. In fact, contemporary undergraduates have slightly less sex, and slightly fewer partners, than students dating before the rise of online dating and the so-called “hook-up culture.”
While that might seem counterintuitive, it actually echoes other research in this space: the sociologist Kathleen Bogle has traced the “death” of traditional dating back to the 1970s, long before Tinder’s founders were even born. When she surveyed college students way back in 2004, most said they had never gone on a date before.
2014: Is Online Better Than Offline for Meeting Partners? Depends: Are You Looking to Marry or to Date?
(Aditi Paul, Michigan State University)
Well, this is fun: In an analysis of the same national survey data that Rosenfelt used, Paul — a Ph.D. candidate at Michigan State — basically comes to the opposite conclusion about online dating and relationship quality.
Her findings? People who meet online are more likely to date than to marry. And whether or not they made it to the altar, online daters usually broke up more and faster: Over the course of the survey, 32 percent of the online-dating couples had broken up, versus 23 percent of the couples who met offline.
Paul does use data from a longer time period than Rosenfelt did, and from fewer people, which helps explain the discrepancies between their conclusions. Still, it seems really weird that two studies could come to such different conclusions, right?
Further proof that all statistics — particularly statistics on sex and dating — lie.
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