I don’t know if the editors of The Atlantic have found a goldmine of reader interest in the topic or if they are just irritated by their kids being online all the time, but once again we read in their pages that the Internet is destroying the good life. In 2008 Google was making us stupid; last year Facebook was making us lonely (it isn’t); and now online dating is “threatening monogamy.”
The latest argument is that e-dating makes it so easy for people to meet romantic partners that it undermines their commitments to any one person. The central proof author Dan Slater provides is the extended tale of one “Jacob,” a man who fires up his dating sites while his latest girlfriend is walking out the door. His major life chore is scheduling his hook-ups. Presumably, before e-dating Jacob would have reconciled himself to a minimally satisfying long-term marriage. Instead, his Don Juan life shows that “the rise of online dating will mean an overall decrease in commitment.”
Now, when it comes to making and breaking commitments, there is some actual evidence one easily could turn to, though Slater doesn’t. Match.com went online in 1995, Yahoo! Personals in 1998, e-Harmony in 2000. By 2000, American couples were as likely to have met online as in college. In other words, e-dating was immediately popular.
So what happened to marriage and divorce rates in the age of online dating?
For the past 50 years, Americans have been marrying later and later. But as e-dating has grown, the trend has actually decelerated. In 1980 the average American woman married for the first time at the age of 22. Between 1980 and 1990, that average rose 1.9 years; between 1990 and 2000 it rose more by 1.2 years, and between 2000 and 2010 it rose by only one year. The data don’t suggest that online dating is causing marriage rates to decline.
And, while online dating was booming, divorce rates were falling. American couples who married in the era of e-dating were a bit less likely to divorce than couples who married before. Of women first married between 1990 and 1994, 25.5 percent broke up before their tenth anniversaries, compared to 28.9 percent of those married a decade earlier. Of women first married between 1995 and 2000, 10.5 percent failed to reach their fifth anniversaries, compared to 12.1 percent of those who had married a decade earlier.
These numbers do not in themselves refute Slater’s argument, but they make it hard to accept it without deeper analysis. Serious scholars have studied the effect of e-dating on commitment. The only one whom Slater quotes, psychologist Eli Finkel, says both in Slater’s article and in his own writing: maybe yes and maybe no; the effect isn’t clear. Meanwhile sociologists Michael Rosenfeld and Reuben Thomas have found that, other things being equal, couples who met online feel no differently toward one another than do couples who met in more traditional ways. Nor do those who met online have an elevated chance of breaking up after a year. Rosenfeld and Thomas did find that meeting in church or in grade school is probably the best way to ensure a lasting relationship, in case either sounds preferable to OK Cupid.
Moreover, Rosenfeld and Thomas show that online dating can make a big difference for people who struggle to pair up in conventional circumstances:
Young heterosexual adults [like “Jacob”] . . . are among the least likely to meet partners online. Young adults have single others all around them, which renders the Internet’s search advantages mostly irrelevant. . . . The power of Internet search is especially important in identifying potential partners for individuals who face a thin dating market. Gays, lesbians, and middle-aged heterosexuals . . . are the groups most likely to rely on the Internet to find their partners.
The future that Slater fears—online dating will undermine commitment because it makes the alternatives to the person in front of you so plentiful and easy—may still come to pass. Or perhaps the opposite will happen: because online dating makes it easier for people to find the right match rather than a wrong match or no match, monogamy will be strengthened. Indeed, if there really are a lot of other fish in the sea, the competition may encourage partners to be especially good to one another, improving their relationships.
So far, however, there is little reason to be spooked. And, by the way, there is also no evidence yet that we have become lonelier thanks to Facebook or that we have gotten stupider thanks to Google.