Online Dating Stigmas Dissolving


• More and more people use wireless connections to make love connections.

• Online daters tend to be slightly older and their courtships progress more quickly.

• Newlyweds who meet online and those who don't show no differences in characteristics.

It's a common stereotype: The lurking, online dater with limited social skills and low self-esteem, who isn't much to look at. New research, however, suggests that this unattractive profile is unjustified.

In one of the first studies to compare newlyweds who met online with ones who met through more traditional routes, researchers found that online daters were slightly older and their courtships had progressed more quickly. But meeting online didn't mean people were any less attractive, intelligent or self-assured. Once they were married, the way they met had no impact on their relationships.

As more and more people use wireless connections to make love connections, the research helps confirm what researchers have already begun to notice: The stigmas that surround online dating are finally dissolving.

"Our preliminary results suggest that, in terms of personal qualities, people who meet online are not that different from people who look for partners through other mechanisms," said Alicia Cast, a sociologist at the University of Iowa, Ames. "I'm not sure technology is altering things as dramatically as people think it is."

Cast didn't set out to study online daters. As part of more general research into relationships, she and colleague Jamie McCartney sent surveys to hundreds of newly married couples in Iowa. About 25 of the 175 responses they received came from couples who had met online. It seemed like a perfect and serendipitous opportunity to investigate a group that now makes up a substantial percentage of the population.

There are no definitive statistics for how many American adults find dates or spouses online, but in a survey published in 2006 by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 74 percent of respondents said they had used the Internet in some way to further their romantic interests. Thirty-one percent said they knew someone who had used an online dating site, and 15 percent said they knew someone who was in a long-term relationship or marriage as a result of online dating.

While Cast and McCartney are still analyzing the third year of surveys in their own project, early results have turned up several differences between online and offline daters, including age.

The couples who met online averaged about 36 years old on their wedding days, while the pairs who met offline were closer to 30. People who met spouses online were more likely to be entering marriage number two or more. Online couples also went from dates to spouses more quickly -- in an average of a year and a half, compared to three and a half years in the offline group.

Despite those demographic distinctions, there was no difference between the groups when it came to intelligence, attractiveness, self-esteem or other personal characteristics. Once they were married, both groups were equally happy, committed, trusting, and loving. They rated their partners with similar levels of intelligence and attractiveness, as well.

Rather than revealing an online lair of losers looking for love, the new work suggests that Web-based daters have simply added the Internet to their repertoire of matchmaking tools, said Mara Adelman, a social scientist who studies communication networks at Seattle University.

"Instead of seeing it as some kind of lonely-hearts club, I think we're seeing it as an only-hearts club," she said. "I think people are practical about technology. It gets you right there to what you need."

In our fast-paced society, she added, dating has become like buying a house or finding a job. You use your networks to find the best fit. That becomes especially true for people as they grow older, become busier, and start running out of other options.

"At some point, you've dated all your friends' friends," she said. "The Internet makes sense because it expands networks in a way that you can't."