Online daters hopeful in search for love

Survey finds millions of singles use Internet despite safety concerns

March 06, 2006|By DAN THANH DANG | DAN THANH DANG,SUN REPORTER

Cautious optimism is alive and well in the world of online dating.

Just ask Judy Lederman. In September, the public relations executive from New Rochelle, N.Y., met the perfect man on JDate.com: He was an Orthodox Jew, director of a nonprofit group, simply gorgeous and nice. Sparks flew. They shared dinners, long walks in the park and endless conversation into the wee hours of the night.

Lederman, who is fortysomething, was happily introducing her online find to friends and neighbors as "my new boyfriend" for about two delightful months -- until his wife popped up, wanting to meet the woman who was trying to break up her marriage.

"It was so humiliating," says Lederman, who is divorced and has been dating online for about a year. "He told me he was separated for a year and in mediation to get a divorce. That hurt. It took me awhile to get over that. ... But now, I'm back out there online. There's a part of me that keeps saying that I've got to get it right, eventually."

Perhaps it's faith. Maybe it's misguided hopefulness. Or could it be an unfailing belief in the power of love? Whatever the reason, a new national survey of online dating habits shows that despite widespread concerns about safety and fears about rampant deception, millions of Americans like Lederman take to the World Wide Web every day searching for a connection online.

Released last week by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, a nonprofit research organization that studies the social impact of the Internet, the survey found that 7 percent of the online adult population, or 10 million people, describe themselves as single and looking for a partner. Roughly 3 million people say they have entered long-term relationships or married someone they met through the services.

Many of the people surveyed say they've had mostly positive experiences with online dating, but a surprising 66 percent agreed online dating is dangerous because it puts personal information online.

Furthermore, 57 percent believe a lot of people who use online dating sites lie about their marital status, according to the survey. Pew based its findings on telephone interviews with 3,215 adults across the nation last fall.

"There are very interesting conundrums in our findings," says Amanda Lenhart, senior research specialist for Pew's online dating survey. "The whole essence of online dating is sharing personal information so you can decide whether you want to meet them and date them, but more than half believe it's a risky practice where you encounter a lot of liars.

"It shows, I think, that people are complicated," Lenhart says. "There are a lot of unexpected and confusing findings, but maybe that encapsulates what it's like to be out there dating in this day and age. It's about trusting people, wanting to meet people, but all the while knowing that it's not always safe and knowing that people aren't always truthful. Online daters are realistically optimistic, I think."

And also a powerful economic force, according to industry statistics.

Once considered the last resort for desperate singles, online dating has long since gone mainstream, with 31 percent of American adults, or 63 million people, saying they know someone who has used a dating Web site, according to the Pew survey.

In dollar figures, that translates to roughly $470 million spent on dating Web sites in 2004, according to the Online Publishers Association. That's up from about $40 million in 2001.

Even though revenue growth has slowed over the last year or so, as the United States increasingly becomes a nation of singles, market analyst Jupiter Research predicts online dating spending will top $640 million in 2008.

The prevalence of online dating is noticeable in pop culture. Countless books (Online Dating for Dummies in 2003), television programs (Hooking Up on ABC last summer), movies (last year's Must Love Dogs) and a growing number of college theses have dealt with the topic in recent years. Most have relied on proprietary studies commissioned by the industry.

In the group Pew surveyed, relatively few couples started their relationships online, Lenhart says.

About 38 percent in serious long-term relationships or marriage met through work or school, and 34 percent met through family or friends.

The hypnotic lure of bar and club music still managed to draw together 13 percent of those surveyed.

Those meeting online made up only 3 percent, besting other conventional methods such as meeting a mate at church (2 percent) and by luck on the street, in the same neighborhood, at a gym, a blind date or growing up together (1 percent each).

"It's so hard to meet people," says Leslie Moreno, 53, an architect from Northwest Washington.

"The great thing [about online dating] is you meet several men at one time as opposed to meeting men one at a time. In traditional dating, you can spend a lot of time with one man before you realize he's not the one."

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