Friday, January 22, 2010

Online stigma fading when it comes to finding potential mate

Many people who find themselves alone on Valentine's Day may consider turning to the internet to be looking for love in all the wrong places. But new research by an Iowa State University sociologist has found that online stigma may be fading when it comes to finding their potential mates.

Associate Professor of Sociology Alicia Cast and her graduate research assistant, Jamie McCartney, have been collecting data from approximately 175 Central Iowa newlywed couples over a three-year period. Among the sample, 25 couples first met online -- either through online dating, social networking sites, or some other online means.

That sample has afforded the ISU researchers a rare look inside those who make online love connections.

"Several years ago, there was a graduate student in our program who really wanted to look at online dating and she had a horrible time trying to figure out how to get access to a population of online daters because the people who run the online sites -- especially the paying ones -- are very picky about who gets access," Cast said. "So my understanding is that there are very few studies that have been able to simultaneously get access to a source of couples who meet through more conventional means, along with those who choose to meet people online."

McCartney first identified the online trend among the study's sample, prompting further investigation by the ISU researchers. They presented preliminary findings of their analysis at last summer's Midwest Sociological Society annual meeting in a presentation titled "Simply Clicking: A Direct Comparison of Newlymarried Online and Offline Couples."

It showed few differences between those who met online and those who met their spouses in a more traditional, offline fashion. But it also found that spouses who met online are older, less likely to be marrying for the first time, and have much shorter courtships -- averaging 18.5 months of dating before getting married by comparison to 42 months for those who met in more traditional ways offline.

The newlyweds gave several reasons for why they first turned to online options.

"In many cases, there are some real structural forces that encourage the support and use of these technologies," said Cast, who did previous research on engagement proposals. "And one of them is just structural constraints on people's time -- such as people who have kids, or have full-time jobs, or work long or extensive hours. They might also be older and so the majority of people who are in their pool of eligibles are already in relationships."

Cast reports that online spouses don't differ from those among offline couples in terms of self-esteem levels, attractiveness, intelligence and other personal characteristics. But she says the structural constraints on their marriage markets seemed to be a defining characteristic.

"That is, they [online spouses] tended to people who are entering a second-plus marriage, or had kids already -- people who just didn't fit your stereotypical single," Cast said.

The ISU researchers are continuing to analyze their data and are planning to publish their results in a professional journal.

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