Living Single

The truth about singles in our society.

To Be or Not to Be Single: What Does the Internet Have to Do with It?

Has the Internet increased the rate of partnering?

If you are single and do not want to be, the internet age must seem terrific. Now you are not stuck trying to find a partner through family, friends, friends of friends, and the people you might run into in your everyday life. A surfeit of internet dating sites sits at your fingertips. The possibilities must seem nearly limitless.

Surely the percentage of adults who have a romantic partner must have increased along with the rise of the internet, right? No longer do we need to trust our intuition on this. A new study by Michael Rosenfeld (author of The Age of Independence) and Reuben Thomas has the goods. I’ll tell you about that in a moment.

First, as you may have guessed, my real interest is in the single people who do not want to become unsingle. Consider, for example, people who like their single lives and are not interested in dating, but also do not want to explain that to other people. Before the rise of the internet, it would be easy to proclaim that there are just no available singles around. Now, though, you can be dogged by the widespread belief that the person of your dreams is just a click away. Keep trying, you are admonished!

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If we are going to compare trends before and after the rise of the internet, what years are we talking about? The authors remind us just how recently the internet became part of our everyday lives:

“When Netscape and Internet Explorer browsers were introduced in late 1994 and early 1995, respectively, hardly any U.S. households had internet access. By 2009, about 67 percent of households had internet access.”

The authors addressed the question of whether the rise of the internet increased the percentage of people who are romantically partnered separately for same-sex couples and heterosexual couples.

It does appear that the number of same-sex unmarried couples, at least as reported by the Census Bureau, has increased markedly between 1990 and 2008. That could mean that gays and lesbians who wanted a partner were better able to find one with the help of the internet. Of course, the growing acceptability of same-sex relationships could have also increased the number of people willing to say publicly that they are in a same-sex relationship. So it is hard to know how much of the increase is really about the internet.

No such problem with other relationships – most heterosexuals are not at all reluctant to declare that they are in a romantic relationship. (Would we even know the name Mark Zuckerberg if they were?)  So did the rise of the internet increase the rate of partnering among heterosexuals? Here’s the answer:

NO.

The article, “Searching for a mate: The rise of the internet as a social intermediary,” reported the results from two surveys, focusing on the ages when heteros are most likely to find partners online. The Current Population Survey showed that for people between the ages of 30 and 49, there was no increase in the percentage of people who were either married or cohabiting between 1995 and 2009.

That is not a totally satisfying answer, though, because it does not include the people who report that they are currently in a romantic relationship, no matter how fresh or new – no household-sharing necessary. The National Survey of Family Growth did ask women whether they had a husband or boyfriend. For those between the ages of 30 and 44, there was no increase in partnering between 1982 and 2008.

The results about the non-increase in partnering were reported at the end of an article chock full of new data about the implications of the rise of the internet for finding a mate. (I’ll probably write more about the other findings, and their possible relevance to singles not interested in dating, in my other blog. UPDATE: Here it is.) Here, though, I just want to pause and underscore the finding I have been describing.

All of the gazillion internet dating sites that are relentlessly vying for the attention of single people have had no discernible impact on the percentage of heterosexuals who are in a romantic relationship. The likelihood that a hetero has a boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse is about the same as it was three decades ago.

The authors’ guess about why there has been no increase in the percentage of heterosexuals with partners points to older single women. They outlive men and so there are many more of them than older single men. Perhaps they are also less likely to have internet access, so they are not benefitting from the greater search opportunities they could have if only they would get connected.

Maybe. But from the perspective of singles who are just not into dating, maybe there is a more optimistic possibility: You can lead an adult to the internet, but you can’t make them date.

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., is author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She is a visiting professor at UCSB.

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