Internet Dating Is Not Ruining Western Civilization

Dan Slater wrote an article called A MillIon First Dates in which he makes the case that online dating by offering a wide selection of readily sexually available partners leads to a decrease in commitment: hence the million first dates trope. The piece is solely focused around a disengaged dope named Jacob, and never touches on the needs, wants, and desires of heterosexual women, or gays.

I am glad to say that Alexis Madrigal skewers this one-sided and unbalanced argument, saving me from doing so.

There’s No Evidence Online Dating Is Threatening Commitment or Marriage – Alexis C. Madrigal via The Atlantic

Unfortunately, neither Jacob’s story nor any of the evidence offered compellingly answers the questions raised. Now, let’s stipulate that there is no dataset that perfectly settles the core question: Does online dating increase or decrease commitment or its related states, like marriage? 

But I’ll tell you one group that I would not trust to give me a straight answer: People who run online dating sites. While these sites may try to attract some users with the idea that they’ll find everlasting love, how great is it for their marketing to suggest that they are so easy and fun that people can’t even stay in committed relationships anymore? As Slater notes, “the profit models of many online-dating sites are at cross-purposes with clients who are trying to develop long-term commitments.” Which is exactly why they are happy to be quoted talking about how well their sites work for getting laid and moving on.


But hey, maybe these guys are right. Maybe online dating and social networking is tearing apart the fabric of society. How well does the proposition actually hold up?

First off, the heaviest users of technology–educated, wealthier people–have been using online dating and networking sites to find each other for years. And yet, divorcerates among this exact group have been declining for 30 years. Take a look at these statistics. If technology were the problem, you’d expect that people who can afford to use the technology, and who have been using the technology, would be seeing the impacts of this new lack of commitment. But that’s just not the case.

Does it follow that within this wealthy, educated group, online daters are less likely to commit or stay married? No, it does not. 

Like I said, there’s no data to prove that question one way or the other. But we have something close. A 2012 paper in the American Sociological Review asked, are people who have the Internet at home more or less likely to be in relationships? Here was the answer they found:

One result of the increasing importance of the Internet in meeting partners is that adults with Internet access at home are substantially more likely to have partners, even after controlling for other factors. Partnership rate has increased during the Internet era (consistent with Internet efficiency of search) for same sex couples, but the heterosexual partnership rate has been flat.

So, we have, at worst, that controlling for other factors, the Internet doesn’t hurt and sometimes helps. That seems to strike right at the heart of Slater’s proposition.

A 2008 paper looked at the Internet’s ability to help people find partners and postulated who might benefit the most. “The Internet’s potential to change matching is perhaps greatest for those facing thin markets or difficulty in meeting potential mates.” This could increase marriage rates as people with smaller pools can more easily find each other. The paper also proposes that perhaps people would be *better* matched through online dating and therefore have higher-quality marriages. The available evidence, though, suggests that there was no difference between couples who met online and couples who met offline. (Surprise!)

So, here’s the way it looks to me: Either online dating’s (and the Internet’s) effect on commitment is nonexistent, the effect has the opposite polarity (i.e. online dating creates more marriages), or whatever small effect either way is overwhelmed by other changes in the structure of commitment and marriage in America. 

The possibility that the relationship “market” is changing in a bunch of ways, rather than just by the introduction of date-matching technology, is the most compelling to me. That same 2008 paper found that the biggest change in marriage could be increasingly “co-ed” workplaces. Many, many more people work in places where they might find relationship partners more easily. That’s a big confounding variable in any analysis of online dating as the key causal factor in any change in marital or commitment rates. 

Madrigal mentions at one point that going online is like moving to a city, and then doesn’t explore it much. But that is exactly the right counterexample: it is exactly like moving to a city. Going online increases your social density: you add new contacts, some of those become close, some of those introduce you to yet others. This opens up new possibilities, but under no circumstance should we think it leads to lessened commitment.

Using divorce as a proxy for decreased commitment, rural areas are just as likely today to see marriages end in divorce. This was not true decades ago.

Once Rare in Rural America, Divorce Is Changing the Face of Its Families, Sabrina Tavernise and Robert Gebeloff

Forty years ago, divorced people were more concentrated in cities and suburbs. But geographic distinctions have all but vanished, and now, for the first time, rural Americans are just as likely to be divorced as city dwellers, according to an analysis of census data by The New York Times.


The shifts that started in cities have spread to less populated regions — women going to work, gaining autonomy, and re-arranging the order of traditional families. Values have changed, too, easing the stigma of divorce.

“In the bottom ranks, men have lost ground and women have gained,” said June Carbone, a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and co-author of “Red Families v. Blue Families.”

“A blue-collar guy has less to offer today than he did in 1979,” Professor Carbone added. Those shifting forces, she said, “create a mismatch between expectation and reality” that can result in women becoming frustrated and leaving, because now they can.

Since 1990, class has become an increasingly reliable predictor of family patterns, Professor Carbone said. College-educated Americans are now more likely to get married and stay married than those with only a high school diploma, a change from 20 years ago, she said, when differences were much smaller.

That trend has been particularly important for rural areas, which have fallen further behind urban ones in education, according to census data. Just one in six rural residents have college degrees, far fewer than in cities, where one in three do. Nationally, there were about 121 million married adults and 26 million divorced people in 2009, compared with about 100 million married and 11 million divorced people in 1980.

My bet is that the factors that contribute to divorce – low education rates, more co-ed workplaces, and the increased acceptability of divorce and, at core, of living alone – trump any of the internet effects, if any.

I am surprised that neither of these articles made any reference to the increasing phenomenon of people living alone. Today, half of Americans are single, and the number is rising. See Eric Klineneberg’s Going Solo, as discussed by Nathan Heller:

The Disconnect, Nathan Heller

Klinenberg’s data suggested that single living was not a social aberration but an inevitable outgrowth of mainstream liberal values. Women’s liberation, widespread urbanization, communications technology, and increased longevity—these four trends lend our era its cultural contours, and each gives rise to solo living. Women facing less pressure to stick to child care and housework can pursue careers, marry and conceive when they please, and divorce if they’re unhappy. The “communications revolution” that began with the telephone and continues with Facebook helps dissolve the boundary between social life and isolation. Urban culture caters heavily to autonomous singles, both in its social diversity and in its amenities: gyms, coffee shops, food deliveries, laundromats, and the like ease solo subsistence. Age, thanks to the uneven advances of modern medicine, makes loners of people who have not previously lived by themselves. By 2000, sixty-two per cent of the widowed elderly were living by themselves, a figure that’s unlikely to fall anytime soon.

So, we have a lot of people dating today – and more in the future – who have no desire to settle down, to ‘commit’, and the reasons to do so are diffuse and interconnected with modern life, but not prinicpally the outgrwoth of internet dating.

The saddest thing is that Slater is likely to sell a lot of books. He’ll be widely quoted. He’ll do morning talk shows. His nonsense will be quoted millions of times until it works its way into the collective unconscious of American culture. But its completely wrong.

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