Having Access to the Internet is Good for Your Love Life (But Only if you are Under 30)

Over the past few posts here at Dollars and Sex, we have been talking about two behaviors that online dating sites encourage that make finding a mate more difficult – excessive filtering and pursuit of the “perfect” mate.


New, yet unpublished, research finds some evidence that US states in which Internet access has spread among households quickly have higher rates of marriage among 21 to 30 year old women compared to states in which Internet technology has spread more slowly.

For example, the author finds that a state that saw its broadband lines increase from none in 1990 to 45 per hundred households in 2006 experienced a 10-12% increase in marriage rates of women in this age group as a result (controlling for other measurable influences on marriage rates). She also finds that those whose marriage rates have increased the most are among the usual suspects of who benefit from a more coordinated market – educated men and women, those living in less urban areas, those not in the workforce and African Americans.

 Before anyone gets too excited about the ability of online dating sites, specifically, to increase marriage rates, I should point out that according to an international study produced by the Oxford Internet Institute only 38.5% of relationships that start online start on online dating sites -- far more met on social networking sites and chat rooms.

That piece of information tells me (and the author of this research) that the effect measured in this paper tells us nothing about the effect of online dating sites on the marriage rates of the population.

The second observation is that increased access to the Internet only appears to have increased the marriage rate of men and women between the ages of 21 and 30. The author of this study explains this result by stating that those who are younger (16-20) are more likely their future spouse offline and that those who are older (31-35) are past the “critical age-range for marriage and childbearing” and are less interested in marrying as a result.

This last assumption is going to big news to many of the women that I know who didn’t even think about looking for a marriage partner until they were past 30.

That observation aside, both assumptions are inconsistent with the evidence from the same Oxford study that I cited above. That study finds that men and women who marry in their 20s were less likely than any other age group to have meet their partner online. Only 19% of couples in that age range met online compared to 24% of 15 to 19 year olds and 23% of 30-39 year olds. The proportions who met online are even larger for older couples – 35% for those who met in their 40s and 38% for those who met in their 50s.

So, the populations that are most likely to have met their future spouse online are the same populations that, according this paper, saw no increase in marriage rates when access to the Internet increased.

That is pretty remarkable when you think about it -- a large percentage of people in these age groups are meeting online and yet the share marrying is unchanged from its level before online communities were made available.

One of the reasons for this effect is that the dependent variable used it not share of people married at one point in time but rather the share who have been married at any point in their lives, regardless of whether or not that marriage lasted.

So I might have married when I was very young (I did in fact) and been divorced when I was still young (ditto) but if I find a new marriage partner online now I don’t show up in this data as having benefited from access to the Internet.

In my mind, that is a lost opportunity, because one of the strengths of the online dating is related to the two weaknesses that we have been talking about over the past week. Filtering and pursuing perfection might make it difficult for some people to find a marriage partner, however those who do are likely to form better quality matches – matches that stand the test of time.  

Let’s hope this is something this young economist will pick up on in future research.

Big thanks to Frances Wooley for sending me her excellent discussion of this paper on her blog at the Worthwhile Canadian Initiative.

References:

Bellou, Andriana (2011). “The Impact of Internet Diffusion on Marriage Rates: Evidence from the Broadband Market” unpublished manuscript available here

Hogan, B., Li, N. and Dutton, W.H. (2011) A Global Shift in the Social Relationships of Networked Individuals: Meeting and Dating Online Comes of Age. Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford.

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