digital love

Study reveals unexpected benefits of dating apps

Swipe right for love.

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Drawing of a hand holding a smartphone
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Serendipitously running into your life partner at the local watering hole, at the office, or in school used to be 'how it is done,' but this style of old school romance is largely gone from our lives. Modern dating is largely a low-stakes, high-reward game of swiping right in search of love (or, at least in search of someone to pass a few hours with on a Friday night).

Apps like Tinder and Bumble are typically blamed for a "dating apocalypse." Every so often, the algorithm spits out a keeper, but ask your single friends about their dating-app dabbles, and the nightmare stories typically outnumber the true romances. But a new study suggests things aren't so bleak.

Comparing couples who met on dating apps with those who met offline or on dating websites, the researcher found those who met on dating apps were just as happy as the other couples. Further, these couples differed from the other couples in one key way: They had stronger desires to start families than those who connected offline.

Among the main takeaways:

  • Increasing numbers of couples are meeting online or on apps
  • Couples who met on dating apps were as satisfied in their relationships as any other couple
  • Women on dating apps were more interested in marriage and having a family than those meeting partners offline
  • Dating apps were more likely to connect couples with different educational and geographical backgrounds

Why it matters — Study author Gina Potarca is a post-doctoral researcher at the Université de Genève. In a statement accompanying the findings, she explains this new insight is especially good news during a pandemic that discourages bumping into strangers in person. It may also spell a more hopeful outcome for the future of courtship in the digital age, she says.

"It is reassuring to dismiss alarming concerns about the long-term effects of using these [dating] tools," she says.

The study was published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE.

Here's the background — Digital dating today is a far cry from the web-based dating platforms of the mid-90s. Instead of the lengthy profiles and OKCupid-style surveys designed to narrow down the pool, app-based dating platforms apply game theory to the process. Matches are driven by split-second compatibility decisions, based primarily on profile pictures. Swipe right to connect, swipe left to reject.

Anecdotal evidence abounds that this new way of dating has led to a rise in casual 'hookup' culture at the expense of longer term commitments. But as Potarca explains in her study, these criticisms may be more pearl-clutching than reality.

"Despite amplified media attention, we are yet to have nationally representative evidence on whether relationships initiated on swipe-based apps are different compared to relationships started in other contexts," says Potarca.

"Till now, surveys that measured where couples met have been scarce, and when such data existed, the sample of couples formed through dating apps was usually small."

Dating apps are often seen as the less serious alternative to dating websites or meeting through friends, but a Swiss researcher found this might not actually be the case.


What's new — To get a better understanding of how these relationships play out in real life, Potarca turned to a 2018 Swiss survey which had 3,245 respondents who met their partner in the last 10-years. Combining these data, which spanned relationships started between 2008 and 2018, with dating data from 1995 to 2007, Potarca sought to see how answers to specific questions had changed over time, like: "Do you intend to marry your partner within the next two years?” and: "To what extent are you satisfied with the relationship with your partner?”

What they did — With these data collected, Potarca focused on how couples who met either offline, on dating websites, or on dating apps responded to questions of relationship satisfaction, intention to live together, a desire to marry, and whether they planned to have children together in the near future. She also looked at how couples using these different platforms might differ in terms of socio-educational status, age, and geographical distance from one another.

To understand how these trends might change across generations as well as platforms, the respondents were grouped by age — 18-29 years, 30-39 years, and the over 40s.

What they discovered — Potarca found the Swiss couples surveyed still primarily met through friends, although the trend was in "slow decline," with at least a quarter of new relationships in the last two years started online.

See also: Love and lust: Why men on Bumble aren't ready for the queen bee

Couples who met on an app were actually more likely to want to live together than those who met the old-fashioned way offline, Potarca found. This trend seemed to be driven, at least in part, by the desires of women using dating apps, who were more likely than those who met offline to be interested in marriage and starting families with their partners.

Interestingly, while couples who met on dating apps reported being just as satisfied in their relationship and similar over-all well-being to those who met offline, couples who met on a dating website had the highest levels of satisfaction, Potarca found.

"This implies that among digital tools for dating, websites and their options for more refined searches may indeed represent a better way of finding a well-matched partner," she writes in the study.

With the continued rise of dating apps' popularity, it's time to better understand how these relationships work.


When it comes to expanding your dating pool both demographically and geographically, dating apps have the upper hand.

Couples who met through dating apps were more likely to date partners with different education levels and to date partners "long-distance" (who lived at least 30-minutes away.)

What's next — While this study offers comforting evidence that the kids are alright, actually, Potarca says future studies with larger data samples, as well as more refined criteria for analysis, are needed before we can come to any firm conclusions about how dating apps have changed the game of love. For example, this current study fails to address topics such as political orientation and religion, and its sample of same-sex couples is too small to suggest significant trends in non-heterosexual couples.

Potarca says future work could also benefit from tracking the full range of partnership choices — from casual hook-ups to committed long-term relationships — to better understand how likely it is for casual encounters had via dating apps may transform into longer-term relationships.

Abstract: Within the span of almost ten years, phone dating apps have transformed the dating scene by normalizing and, according to some voices, gamifying the digital quest for a partner. Despite amplified discussion on how swipe-based apps damage the fabric of intimate ties, scientific accounts on whether they have led to different relationship patterns are missing. Using 2018 survey data from Switzerland, this study provides a rich overview of couples who met through dating apps by addressing three main themes: 1) family formation intentions, 2) relationship satisfaction and individual well-being, and 3) assortative mating. The data indicate that in Switzerland, dating apps have recently taken over as main online dating context. Results further show that couples formed through mobile dating have stronger cohabiting intentions than those formed in non-digital settings. Women who found their partner through a dating app also have stronger fertility desires and intentions than those who found their partner offline. Generally, there are no differences between couples initiated through dating apps and those initiated elsewhere regarding relationship and life satisfaction. Though more data are needed to capture the full range of users’ romantic and sexual experiences, current results mitigate some of the concerns regarding the short-term orientation or the poor quality of relationships formed through mobile dating. Findings finally suggest that dating apps play an important role in altering couple composition by allowing for more educationally diverse and geographically distant couples.

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