This is the time of year when people sign up to dating sites in the hope they don’t see in the New Year alone, and they’re looking beyond their own social bubbles for love.
Does online dating break down barriers? Research suggests it does. Dating sites bring people from different backgrounds together in a way that other parts of the internet don’t, recent research on the topic concludes. What’s more, not only is meeting online predictive of educational diversity in couples, but it also produces more couples of more similar ages than “off-line” sources of romantic entanglement — namely, meeting through friends or a bar.
In a paper released earlier this year, Reuben J. Thomas, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of New Mexico, looked at data from 3,130 people in 2009 and 2017 to establish how they met their partner. He found that “couples who met online are more likely to be interracial, interreligious, and of different college degree status.” Those with college-educated mothers were not more or less likely to partner with those with-or-without college educated mothers online.
This is backed up by earlier studies. Online dating is linked to stronger marriages, a rise in interracial partnerships, and more breaking down of social barriers, according to a research analyzed last year by economics professors Josue Ortega at the University of Essex and Philipp Hergovich at the University of Vienna in Austria. In fact, over one-third of marriages begin online, making it the second most popular way for heterosexual partners to meet and the most popular way among gay partners.
The University of New Mexico study presents a rare instance of the internet bringing people of different backgrounds together instead of dividing them. A 2017 Pew report on the future of the internet predicted that the online world as a whole would continue to drive apart America’s increasingly fractured society. One in six newlyweds is married to someone of a different race or ethnicity, up from just 3% in 1967 when the Supreme Court ruled on Loving vs. Virginia.
Other studies have found that multiracial online daters are popular in the dating pool. A 2015 study published in the American Sociological Review, found that white men responded more frequently to women of Asian-white descent; white women responded more frequently to white men. Black women responded most frequently to men of black-white descent and white men, while black men were most likely to respond to women of black-white descent.
That study used seven years of data from a U.S. dating site to examine nearly 6.7 million initial messages sent between heterosexual women and men. It found Asian men and women both respond more frequently to Asian-white online daters, followed by white daters. Hispanic women respond most frequently to Hispanic-white daters and Hispanic men buck the trend by responding to Hispanic women and white women slightly more than women of Hispanic-white heritage.
But not everyone agrees that online dating makes for more diverse couplings. Whether it’s OKCupid, Tinder, which uses Facebook FB, +1.23% connections, or Match.com IAC, +4.48% Michael J. Rosenfeld, an associate professor of sociology at Stanford University, said the site’s algorithms play a role. “By steering you to someone who looks like you and has things in common with you, algorithms perform a role not so different from what your parents would perform 100 years ago.”
(This story was updated on Dec. 7, 2018.)
Get a daily roundup of the top reads in personal finance delivered to your inbox. Subscribe to MarketWatch's free Personal Finance Daily newsletter. Sign up here.