The search for love in the digital age tends to stir up a lot of anxiety. If you've ever heard stories from your friends about their bad dates, you might reasonably approach dating apps with caution. But just as online dating can foster some comically bad experiences, there are plenty of benefits as well. Many of us know couples who seem so perfectly matched that it's almost impossible to believe they met on opposite sides of a screen.
When it comes down to it, does online dating actually work? While you might be worried it's not a good idea (or even a waste of time), like all matters in love, it has its pros and cons. We decided to bring the question to licensed marriage and family therapist and relationship expert Lisa Marie Bobby, Ph.D., of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching.
Meet the Expert
Lisa Marie Bobby, Ph.D., is a marriage and family therapist with over 15 years of experience. She is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching, the award-winning author of Exaholics, and the host of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast.
Dating apps can lead to superficiality and ghosting, but there are also many positives. "While online dating has some potential for pitfalls compared to meeting people in real life, the volume of possibilities is much higher," says Bobby. "That increases the chances that you'll meet someone you're truly compatible with."
So let's put the fears to rest—and put the internet to the test. Read on to learn expert advice on how well online dating really works.
What Research Says About Dating Apps
Research shows that online dating is on the rise. A Pew Research Center study conducted in October 2019 found that 30 percent of Americans have used online dating, compared to just 11 percent in 2013. Of those, 12 percent have gotten married or been in a committed relationship with someone they met through online dating—a notable increase from just 3 percent in 2013.
Online dating appears to be a practical way to date for most people. According to the study, roughly 60 percent of participants have had positive experiences with dating platforms. Many people have success finding romantic partners online, whether they're looking for something casual or long term. Overall, the majority of participants found it relatively easy to meet potentially compatible partners in terms of those they found attractive or with whom they shared hobbies and interests.
Research shows, however, there are negative side effects of online dating, particularly for young women. According to the survey, 60 percent of women ages 18 to 34 say someone on an app or dating site kept contacting them after they said they weren't interested while about the same percentage of women in that age group reported that they were sent unsolicited sexually explicit pictures or messages.
Bobby says the reason for many of the negative aspects of online dating could be a lack of what she calls a "shared community." "Connecting through online dating feels much more like meeting a virtual stranger and having to establish points of meaningful connection with little real-world experience to go on," she says. "Furthermore, the absence of a shared community or relationships make it easier to ghost or be inconsiderate without concern of consequences to your reputation or comfort in your community."
How to Get the Most Out of Online Dating
Before you download an app or two and create your profile, Bobby recommends some soul-searching. The last thing you want to do is start matching with people online, get to talking, and realize you have no idea what you're looking for out of a partner or a relationship.
"Spend time and energy getting clear about who you are and what you really want in a relationship, and think about who your ideal partner is," says Bobby. "Also, think about what your ideal partner is seeking in a prospective mate and how you can connect with them authentically."
It's also important to do some research about the app you decide to download and find out how it works. Then, spend some time and energy on your profile. Choose pictures and prompts that show who you are, what you like, and how you present yourself to the world. If it's clear you haven't put any thought or effort into your profile, potential partners might assume you'll take the same approach in a relationship.
Once you've created your profile, don't expect to meet "the one" right away, and prepare to spend a significant amount of time vetting potential partners. But since we don't have all the time in the world to swipe, having a system to weed out those with whom you are incompatible is key. "Develop a process to help you cut through the fluff and get to know who someone really is as quickly as possible," she says. "A five-minute call will often tell you all you need to know."
Move from texting to a phone or video call ASAP for a better sense of mutual interest and compatibility. Even if it feels awkward, it can save you a lot of time—and disappointment.
What to Avoid When Using Dating Apps
Odds are, if you've participated in online dating, you have a few bad date stories. Often the cause of these negative experiences is that your expectations don't match up with reality. Bobby says that while online dating requires some "marketing savvy" and the ability to, in essence, sell yourself online, you shouldn't sacrifice the truth to come across as what you perceive to be "better."
"Never misrepresent yourself or try to appear as something you're not," she says. "You might get online interactions, but they'll quickly fizzle when it becomes apparent that you are different than what your potential partner was expecting." If you're looking for a truly meaningful relationship, concealing aspects of yourself that you're afraid others won't like or accept on your profile is counterproductive. Be authentic, and you'll attract those with similar values.
On the other hand, avoid falling victim to someone you suspect is being deceitful on their profile by noticing red flags. Not everyone has social media or updates it regularly, but most people who do will be glad to share their profiles with you when asked. And most of the time, if someone is truly interested, they'll hop on a phone call or video chat with you before meeting up, even if they feel a bit awkward. Going into a date "cold" with someone you aren't entirely sure about can often end up being a waste of time and lead to disappointment.
Lastly, when you do get that match or first date, it's important for you and a prospective partner to feel a certain chemistry, but don't rely on it completely. "When you are evaluating potential partners, do not make the mistake of prioritizing 'chemistry' over character," says Bobby. Too much wit and charm may give you butterflies, but it can also be a sign that the person is a "player" or even a narcissist.
Look for depth, emotional intelligence, empathy, friendship, aligned values, and psychological flexibility if a long-term relationship is your goal.
How Likely Are You to Find "The One" Online?
A healthy relationship is totally possible whether you're meeting people in person or online, but the two methods differ for a variety of reasons. The fact is, there are positives to meeting IRL. When two people meet organically, it's probably because they already have something in common, like friends or hobbies. "This natural convergence of circumstances, relationships, or interests is a strength for a new relationship," says Bobby. "They provide a budding couple with more opportunities for authentic connection as well as more social pressure to treat each other decently, even if it's not ultimately a good match."
But that doesn't mean online dating can't be equally as successful. Since everyone on a dating site is (presumably) available, you have ample opportunities to put yourself out there and find a good match. When you engage in social events where you're likely to meet new people, the pool of those who are single and looking is much smaller than when you're on an app or dating site where everyone is in the same boat as you.
"Singles seeking relationships are looking to connect online," says Bobby. "That reality means that it's highly likely of finding 'the one' because they're in the same place, also looking for you!" If you're straightforward about what you want, it increases your chances of finding a good partner even more.
No matter your intentions, there seems to be something for everyone when dating online—just be clear about your expectations. Embrace new experiences, learn a little about yourself, and don't forget to have fun. You may even meet your dream partner.
Pew Research Center. "10 Facts About Americans and Online Dating." February 6, 2020.