Let's file this under "not conclusive, but certainly fascinating." Real Time Economics's Brenda Cronin points to a new discussion paper (pdf) arguing that Internet access is halting the drop in marriage rates among young people.
The basic intuition here is that stuff like online dating makes it easier for people to find potential partners — or, as University of Montreal economist Andriana Bellou puts it, the Internet "has the potential to reduce search frictions." That's not utterly implausible. Researchers have already noted that the Internet allows us to find jobs and homes more easily. Why not spouses?
To test this out, Bellou exploits the fact that broadband arrived in the United States unevenly during the 1990s and 2000s. And she compares the rates of adoption trends with Current Population Survey data on marriage rates for Americans aged 21-30.
What she found was that "marriage rates grew on average more in states with greater increases in broadband penetration." The data is awfully messy, but there does seem to be a correlation:
The problem is that this doesn't prove causation. Maybe there's something else about the states that got broadband earlier that explains why marriage rates rose faster. Maybe people inclined to marriage were moving to states with broadband access. Or something else. So Bellou tested out a wide variety of alternative hypotheses and found them lacking. "A number of tests," she concludes, "suggest that this relationship is causal."
There's also a discussion about whether the Internet is simply leading to more marriages or more long-lasting marriages. Either one is possible. Maybe online dating and searching simply allow people to divorce and remarry more easily. Or perhaps online dating allows people to find more suitable matches in the first place — making marriages more durable. Sadly, the limits of the survey data doesn't allow Bellou to conclude one way or the other here.
Either way... it's an intriguing theory. Marriage rates in the United States have plummeted in the last few decades. In 2011, just 51 percent of American adults were married, down from 72 percent in 1960. (The number who had never been married had also risen, from 15 percent to 28 percent). But it's possible that the Internet's pushing against the tide, at least on the margins.
Related: And for a more dystopian look at online dating, Rob Horning's essay in The New Inquiry is a fun read. One bit: "Dating sites do what they can to distort the pursuit of love, turn it into a process of self-nichification as pseudo-self-discovery, but they can’t entirely eliminate the volatility that comes when strangers are brought together with the intent of being strangers no longer."