Since their emergence in the mid-1990’s, online dating services have become an increasingly popular way for Americans to seek romantic partners and lifelong mates. While people have been finding love online since the earliest days of the internet, through newsgroups, chat rooms, games and other online communities, the meteoric development of the commercial dating industry has brought millions of paying users and mainstream exposure to the activity.
The Online Publisher’s Association reported in 2004 that dating websites created more revenue than any other paid online content category, as they netted roughly $470 million in consumer spending, up from about $40 million in 2001.1Revenue growth has slowed in recent years, but the industry continues to maintain a robust base of users, many of them willing to pay premium fees for access to specialized services.
Some early concerns about the potential risks of online dating
Online dating has not always had the best reputation. When online dating activity was observed in the mid-1990s, some attention focused on the ease with which people could deceive others. One article in the St. Petersburg Times on Valentine’s Day 1995 stressed:
While the success of online dating services suggests that these extreme cases have been the exception rather than the rule, some of these initial concerns about finding a partner online still resonate today. In an October 1996 advice column, Ann Landers cited a warning from a writer who advised those considering online dating to verify their date’s identity, and to look out for signs that would-be daters are actually predators.
The writer advised users to meet any dates arranged online in public places and to be wary of those who refuse to divulge both their work and home telephone numbers before meeting. Likewise, the current “Safety Tips” page on Match.com in 2006 cautions that users would be wise to do some background research on their potential dates before meeting—asking for photos and phone numbers and possibly even paying for a background check. Even more imperative, the site cautions, one should always meet in a public place for the
This study helps fill a gap in the research on online dating
The academic literature and marketing research that documents the rise of online dating and its impact on society has also been emerging at a swift pace. Internet romance has been the subject of several recently issued books, many journal articles, and a considerable number of graduate theses and dissertations.11 Yet, much of the available work is either quite specialized in scope or is based on proprietary data, creating challenges for researchers who wish to examine general patterns that might be comparable with other national data on social trends. Furthermore, there was a need to benchmark the broader use of the internet for dating-related activities, which extend well beyond the confines of online dating services.
Given that little data on public attitudes and experiences had been gathered through nationally representative surveys, the Pew Internet & American Life Project decided to explore this subject in a survey in the autumn of 2005, after being approached by Dr. Phillip Morgan from Duke University and Dr. Seth Sanders from the University of Maryland. Both researchers had encountered this gap in available data while conducting work on designing new models to explore technology’s impact on relationship formation and family change. The Pew Internet Project, having a shared interest in studying this aspect of the internet’s social impact, was uniquely poised to gather new data for the field. The results are the basis for this report.