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Looking for love: Dating app use soars as stigma takes a dive
The use of dating apps and the number of app choices is way up in multiple age categories, a new Pew Research Center study says. Meanwhile, stigma has dropped. Singles of all ages are checking them out. - photo by Lois M. Collins
Megan and Nathan Jarrett married a month ago. They'd graduated from the same college, had nearly 20 friends in common on Facebook and still might never have met had it not been for a popular mobile dating app.

Megan, 25, said she is a "big fan" of such dating help. She's not alone.

Finding a date hasn't hinged primarily on chance encounters or "setups" by friends since the advent of online dating sites and mobile dating apps. The popularity and number of those tools has grown across all age groups, but especially among young adults and those approaching retirement age, according to a new study by Pew Research Center.

Fifteen percent of American adults used either online dating sites, mobile apps or both, said the report. It found that 12 percent of American adults have used an online dating site, up from 9 percent two years ago, while nearly 1 in 10 have used a mobile phone dating app. That's nearly triple the number who used mobile phones to find dates in 2013.

Among 18- to 24-year-olds, 27 percent have used websites or mobile apps to facilitate dating, according to the survey of 2,001 adults, conducted last summer. Among those ages 55 to 64, the number has jumped from 6 percent to 12 percent since 2013. Mobile dating app use by young adults has accounted for the biggest chunk of growth, 22 percent compared to 5 percent two years ago.

It's the opposite of the old adage that familiarity breeds contempt. As more people know someone who uses online or mobile app dating tools or try it themselves the practice is becoming more accepted and mainstream. Pew found the majority of people believe online dating is a good way to meet people, whether they've tried it themselves or not.

"By and large, we've seen a shift in terms of people's attitudes toward online dating," said Aaron Smith, Pew's associate director of Internet research. "Stigma doesn't exist to the extent it did a decade ago."

Pluses and minuses

Among other highlights of the Pew report:

  • College-educated folks and the "relatively affluent" are more likely than other groups to know couples who met online or who find dates that way. Close to 60 percent know people who use the tools, while nearly half know someone who married or is in a long-term relationship that began that way. Numbers are much lower, 25 and 18 percent, respectively, for those who have not gone to college.
  • Of those who've tried it, four-fifths say it's a "good way to meet people."
  • Just over 60 percent of those daters say people find a better match because they meet a lot of people and that online dating is an "easier" and "more efficient" way to meet people.
But 45 percent of those who have tried online dating say it's "more dangerous" than other ways to meet people. Smith said women are more likely than men to feel that way.

Megan Jarrett said she and Nathan met in person for the first time at a local deli because both wanted to meet in a public place where they felt safe. They also, coincidentally, asked the same young woman among their mutual acquaintances if the other was a good person. That's not uncommon and it's something that online dating expert Julie Spira sees as a real strength of mobile dating apps, which point out mutual friends.

Despite perceived pluses, though, about a third of those surveyed said the availability of so many dating options "keeps people from settling down."

Simple to socialize

Spira doesn't see much difference in purpose for Web-based dating sites and mobile apps, but the latter are drawing more and more people who "want to date from the convenience of their mobile phones and get push notifications and start to communicate and it makes the dates happen much faster." She expects mobile to keep growing.

"I have often said if it was waterproof, the mobile phone would be in the shower with you," said Spira, author of "The Perils of Cyber-Dating: Confessions of a Hopeful Romantic Looking for Love Online" and CEO of

Mobile dating apps are low stakes and low barrier compared to traditional online dating sites where members answer lots of questions and write long profiles, Smith said. The mobile apps and most traditional online dating sites have those, as well "tend to be minimal in that they're just a few pictures, a sentence or two, a snappy, engaging way of making a quick judgment. In a lot of ways, they speak very much to the way young people engage with lots of types of information."

The mobile apps are "extremely oriented around social media, location activities and game-play mechanics," he said. Those aspects are important and familiar to younger adults. While older adults sometimes use mobile apps, they are more likely to use online dating sites, he added.

We interviewed several dating app users to get an idea of how they give dating a virtual jump-start.

Steph Shoell, 30, considers herself a sociable person and didn't feel like she needed an app to help her find great dates. But she decided to try it anyway and has no regrets. "I have met some awesome guys."

She initially thought it was just great fun to see how many dates she could have in a week. "It was so much fun and there are all these options for awesome people to go out with." Online dating sites, however, didn't appeal to her because "you have to be flirty," a skill she said she lacks. She doesn't consistently use dating apps, but when she does, she said she's becoming more focused, narrowing her choices to guys she might want to introduce to her mom sometime.

Dory Peacock, 26, does standup comedy. She heard other comedians talking about the apps and wondered if she'd find material there. "It pretty much delivered," she jokes. "It's so weird to me because I would expect it to be different than meeting people in real life and it's not. You do small talk for two or three days and maybe never make plans. It's like being at the weirdest party ever."

She said she, too, would like to meet someone and fall in love. She likes mobile dating apps for the integrity, because "you all know why you're there. It's not like going to a party or bar and then pretending you're casually running into people," she said. On the other hand, with snippets of information that the macroprofiles provide on dating apps, "someone who's probably really nice may sound like a serial killer."

Expert advice

For those who choose to try online or mobile app dating tools, Spira recommends being honest and specific about what one seeks. If marriage is the goal, say so. If it's not, say that.

Profiles on the apps are very short and it's key to know the lingo, she said. NSA is not, in this case, a national agency. It means "no strings attached" and no serious relationship in the offing, for instance.

Use of digital tools lets people find dates quickly. It's a confidence builder, Spira said. It's possible to meet a greater variety of people than one might otherwise. That's an advantage that people can embrace.

"I am of the belief that the more people you date, the better dater you become and the more you will learn about what you really want at that point in your life," said Spira, who noted one's desires are not static, nor are they the same within age groups. A 30-something might be focused on career and not interested in a long-term relationship or might be ready to start a family.

"Say if you want to get married," she said. "If you scare away someone, you scare away the person that was never going to marry you anyway."

She also said to post accurate photos, leave off the sunglasses that make you look like you're hiding something and skip prom photos. Be aware, too, that potential dates will look you up on social media and will see if you look like those profile photos.

The full Pew report is available online.