One third of us have tried dating websites with middle-aged suitors using them most

14 February 2011

 An Oxford University study suggests that nearly one in three of us who use the internet have visited online dating sites. An international survey of 24,000 men and women who are presently online found that just six per cent had gone to dating websites in 1997 but by 2009, 30 per cent of the sample had tried them with 15 per cent finding their current partner that way.

The Oxford Internet Institute (OII) conducted an online questionnaire with 12,000 couples from 18 countries, all of whom had regular access to the internet. They were asked a series of questions about whether they had visited dating websites, other online services and where else they might go looking for a partner. The questions related to the period 1997 to 2009.

Middle-aged men and women (aged 40-69) looking to start new relationships after 1996 were the most likely to use online dating sites, with 36 per cent of them revealing that they had found their current partner online. The study dispels the myth that social networking and online dating is primarily for the young with just 23 per cent of 18-40-year-olds saying they had started a relationship through the internet. However, only two people in the sample started a relationship in their 70s and neither did this through the internet.

The study reveals to what extent chat rooms and social network sites have played a role in introducing people to their partners. For people who began their relationship before 2000, less than 10 per cent said they had met on a social networking site. But by 2005 that had doubled to 21 per cent, while the popularity of chat rooms declined over the same period.

Study co-author Dr Bernie Hogan, Research Fellow at the OII, said: ‘Finding your partner online was once regarded as a bit of a novelty, but this survey suggests it has become a common if not dominant way of meeting new partners, particularly if you are between 40 and 70 years old. Our questionnaire also reveals that people who know others who date online are more likely to try it and approve of it. Our study gives us some insight into the significance and impact of the internet and how it is affecting intimate relationships both online and offline.’

Church events, family gatherings or activities based around a shared hobby are experiencing a slight decline in popularity as ways of finding a partner and this could be because they are viewed as less successful hunting grounds, says the study. For example, only one in 15 people who said they were looking through their church found someone that way.  Despite the recent spike in online dating, most of the sample said they had met their partner through traditional offline channels – through friends of friends (67 per cent) or meeting at clubs or bars (69 per cent).

Co-author and OII Director, Professor William Dutton, said: ‘When you ask the question “How did you meet?” the most likely answer is still “through mutual friends” or “at a club or bar”. But this study suggests there has been a noticeable shift in dating strategies. Men and women are seeing the internet as a new place to meet – another option for the networked individual. A growing number now view dating as a distinct and intentional activity with its own set of contexts and conventions. The popularity of online dating seems largely down to its accessibility and the fact that people seem comfortable disclosing what appear to be personal details in a “pseudo-anonymous” online setting.’ 

The study reveals there might be national differences in attitudes to online dating. Users in Northern European countries are slightly but significantly more likely to rely on one-to-one dating websites while those in Spanish and Portuguese-speaking nations are more likely to use social networking sites as well. The most gregarious online nation appears to be Brazil – more than eight of out ten (83 per cent) of those interviewed who had access to the internet said they had met someone who had been first introduced to them online, but this was not just limited to personal relationships. By contrast, in Japan, a country known for embracing technology in so many ways, internet users were rather reluctant to engage with online dating.

The paper is based on the ‘Me, My Spouse and the Internet Project’ at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, supported by a grant from eHarmony, an online dating service.

Dr Bernie Hogan is one of four Oxford University speakers who will be giving a lecture entitled ‘Love and Other Things’ on Monday 14 February at 1.15pm. The free lecture will take place in the Main Lecture Theatre of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, Parks Road, Oxford. The lecture will be available to view at: http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=45B392A8C9F87D10

For more information, please contact the University of Oxford Press Office on 01865 280534 or email press.office@admin.ox.ac.uk

Alternatively, contact Dr Bernie Hogan on Bernie.hogan@oii.ox.ac.uk

Notes for editors

  • The study ‘A Global Shift in Relationship Practices: Patterns of Meeting and Dating in the Online World’ by Bernie Hogan and William Dutton of the Oxford Internet Institute will be published on Monday 14 February 2011.
  • The countries included in the survey: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the UK. 
  • The 12,000 couples who took part in the online questionnaires were aged between 18 and 70 years old (the average age of men was 42 and women 39 years old). All the couples had access to the internet. Both couple members were asked to fill in online questionnaires. Of the sample, 2.65 were cohabiting gay men and 2.2 per cent were cohabiting gay women. 
  • The paper is based on the ‘Me, My Spouse and the Internet Project’ at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, supported by a grant from eHarmony. This project enabled collaboration between the OII and eHarmony Labs. http://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/research/projects/?id=47
  • The Oxford Internet Institute (OII) was founded as a department of the University of Oxford in 2001. The OII is a leading world centre for the multidisciplinary study of the internet and society, focusing on internet-related research and teaching, and on informing policy-making and practice. The OII's research faculty, academic visitors and research associates are engaged in a variety of research projects covering social, economic, political, legal, industrial, technical and ethical issues of the internet in everyday life, governance and democracy, science and learning, and shaping the internet. See http://www.oii.ox.ac.uk
  • eHarmony launched in the UK in July 2008 as an online dating service looking for a long-term relationship. The company started out in the USA in 2000. eHarmony is also available in Canada, Australia and Brazil, and looking to expand further. See http://www.eharmony.co.uk/about/eharmony