Online dating is, in a sense, the latest iteration of an old idea: People have been using digital technology to help them find romance since the emergence of computer dating services in the 1950s and 1960s. Today, as punch cards and room-sized mainframes have largely been superseded by smartphone apps and websites, technology continues to reshape how people connect with each other.

We spoke with Monica Anderson, Pew Research Center’s associate director of internet and technology research, about the Center’s latest report on the world of online dating. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and concision.

It’s been several years since we’ve done a survey about online dating. Why did you think now was the time to revisit the topic?

Monica Anderson, associate director of research at Pew Research Center
Monica Anderson, associate director of research at Pew Research Center

One of the long-standing themes of the Center’s work is how Americans find romantic partners and interact with loved ones. We’ve extensively documented the changing demographic nature of marriage in America, and conducted multiple surveys on the way technology is changing dating and relationships.

This new survey builds on this body of work and, for the first time, gives us the ability to compare experiences within the online dating population on such key dimensions as age, gender and sexual orientation. Therefore, we hope this research helps to shed light on the diversity of experiences of online daters and bring own voices to the broader conversation around today’s dating environment.

This year also marks the 25th anniversary of the launch of Match.com, which has grown to become one of the biggest online dating companies in the world. This helped us to think through the way online dating has evolved over the past two and half decades and look for ways to measure if some of the initial stigmas around online dating, such as those related to personal safety, are still present today.

What, if anything, has changed in the way you’ve asked about online dating in this survey compared with the research you’ve done previously?

To begin with, the current survey was fielded online through the Center’s American Trends Panel (ATP), while the surveys conducted in 2013 and 2015 were done via telephone. This move is a broader reflection of survey research in general, with online probability samples like the ATP becoming a more common way to field surveys, due in part to declining response rates for traditional telephone surveys.

Additionally, our previous surveys asked about dating websites and dating apps separately in order to differentiate between more desktop-centric platforms versus mobile-only versions. But today’s digital landscape is one in which people are using desktops and smartphones more interchangeably. Online dating companies also are offering up both desktop versions – like the one Tinder launched in 2017 – and mobile friendly ones. With this in mind, we decided to update our survey to measure website and mobile app use in one question.

Even with these differences, it’s clear from this survey and outside research that there has been a notable jump in the share of Americans who report using dating sites and apps. For example, the share of American adults who report using dating platforms in this current survey is similar to the share found in Morning Consult’s early 2018 survey about online dating. Other studies show that online dating is playing a larger role in how people meet romantic partners, compared with the early 2010s.

What findings from this report strikes you as particularly notable?

One of the things we wanted to measure in this survey is how, if at all, people’s experiences with online dating differ by sexual orientation. One of the striking findings in the report highlights how much more common online dating is among those who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual (LGB), compared with those who are straight. More than half of LGB adults (55%) say they have used a dating site or app, but this share drops to 28% among those who are straight.

Other studies have found a similar pattern. The differences are often attributed to the fact that the internet helps those from groups who have a smaller pool of potential daters – such as those who identify as gay or lesbian – to identify and meet potential partners. Other sources point out that online dating may offer those who are LGB a safer or more private way of meeting romantic partners than in-person ways of meeting.

This survey also finds that LGB online daters are more likely than straight users to say their overall experience with dating sites and apps have been positive rather than negative, and that they have found a spouse or committed partner through these platforms. But LGB online daters are also far more likely than those who are straight to report experiencing other, less positive sides of using dating sites and apps, such as receiving sexually explicit images or messages they didn’t ask for or being called an offensive name.

Some findings show a darker side of online dating. For example, younger women are more likely to say they’ve had negative interactions. How do these findings fit in with what we already knew about online harassment?

To gain a better understanding of the prevalence of certain behaviors on dating platforms, our survey measured four different types of incidents that online daters may face on a dating site or app. We found that 57% of women ages 18 to 34 who use these platforms say someone on a dating site or app sent them a sexually explicit image or message they didn’t ask for – roughly twice the share of male users in the same age range.

These findings are similar to those in previous Center studies that focused on online harassment more broadly – not just in the context of online dating. A 2017 Center survey found that young women were far more likely than young men to say they had ever received explicit images they hadn’t asked for. We also found gender differences along these lines in our 2018 survey of teenagers, with higher shares of teen girls saying these received these types of nonconsensual messages when compared with boys.

This research highlights how more sexualized forms of online harassment – regardless of the venue – are a common part of the online experience for younger women and teen girls.

What does the survey tell us about how differently people view online dating, depending on whether they have or have not tried it?

There are some interesting patterns that show how personal experiences with digital technology can inform attitudes. Americans who have used a dating site or app tend to think more positively about these platforms, while those who have never used them are more skeptical. This is especially true with questions about the safety of online dating. A majority of online dating users say these platforms are a very or somewhat safe way to meet others, but that share falls to about half among those who have never used these platforms (71% vs. 47%).

There are more modest differences when it comes to views about the impact and success rate of online dating. Users of dating sites or apps are more likely than nonusers to believe relationships where people first met through a dating site or app are just as successful as those that began in person or to feel as if online dating has a had a mostly positive effect on dating and relationships.