Do a quick online search for the term “What causes divorce” and you will be greeted with a myriad of sites claiming to have the answer. A popular claim is that online dating and social networking sites are major contributors to infidelity and divorce. A new economics paper presents some very compelling evidence that it is simply not true. The ease at which married people can find new lovers online is not causing an increase in marital instability.
Consider the following, very brief, theoretical model of looking for love.
A single person wants to be married and knows the minimum qualities another person must have in order for them to be a suitable spouse. This person searches until they find a mate who has at least these minimum qualities (or reservation value) and, if that other person is also satisfied that their reservation value has been met, the two people marry.
(One day I plan to write a whole new set of marriage vows that reflect this pragmatic view of marriage: “Do you, Marina, accept that this man meets your minimum requirements for a husband?”)
When the search for a mate is likely to be a long and costly process, people tend to settle on a low reservation value mate implying when search costs are high the quality of marriages will be low.
When search for a mate is less costly, however, people tend to set a high reservation value mate, implying when search costs are low the quality of marriages is high.
The first observation here is that in as much as access to online dating and social networking sites lowers the cost of searching for a mate, increased access to the Internet should lead to higher quality marriages.
The second observation is that once people are married, because the cost of continuing to search for a new mate is also low with greater access to the Internet, people might continue to search for a new mate who exceeds the value of their existing mate.
The implications of this theory is that increased access to online dating will both decrease the probability of divorce (because the quality of marriages increases) and increase the probability of divorce (because married people can continue to search for new partners). If these two effects offset each other then we should observe in the data an ambiguous relationship between access to the Internet and divorce rates.
The first piece of evidence against an increase in access to the Internet uses state-by-state comparisons of both divorce rates and Internet access. The author finds that a 10% increase in the share of households that have access to the Internet in a state is correlated with an 11.6% decline in the state divorce rate. Once the author controls for other factors that might influence divorce rates (like unemployment rates, poverty rates, urbanization etc.) the effect of Internet access on divorce rates completely disappears.
The second piece of evidence is derived from household level data of 43,552 married couples that includes information as to whether or not the household has access to the Internet. Again the empirical analysis finds that increased access to the Internet decreases divorce rates except in this analysis the result is not statistically significant. Again the addition of control variables (like income, education, race, number of children etc.) makes the effect of having access to the Internet on divorce completely disappear.
Finally, the addition of a husband’s frequency of Internet access to this analysis indicates couples in which the husband uses the Internet every day are less likely to divorce, a result that is statistically significant.
One problem with this data is that we have no idea what people are doing online when they are searching. They could just be doing what everyone else is doing (i.e. downloading porn). But even without that information, if online dating and social networking sites were a major cause of divorce we would expect to see some evidence of this in a detailed data set like the one used in this analysis.
What is the real cause of divorce? You would be surprised how silent academic research is on this issue. I haven’t even been able to find any evidence that infidelity is a cause of divorce, so it isn’t that surprising that Internet-aided infidelity is not driving divorce rates. It doesn’t really matter if 42% of all divorce cases involved one partner finding a new lover online, as one UK study found, because the Internet is only a tool that shortens the search that those people who want out of their marriage use to find new love.
Kendall, T. D. 2011. "The Relationship between Internet Access and Divorce Rate" Journal of family and economic issues: 1-12.