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Feature

Woman looking at an Internet dating Web site.

In online dating sites like Match.com, users can browse the profiles--and pictures--of potential partners.

Love in the new millennium

By Patty Mattern

February 14, 2006

Cupid's arrows are increasingly soaring through cyberspace, and it turns out that the intimate relationships started there are just as successful as relationships started in more traditional ways, according to University of Minnesota researchers.

"From the research, relationships started on the Internet are just as good as other relationships. There's no quality difference," says Heather Haberman, a U doctoral student who has conducted research on Internet relationships and taught classes on cyber romance.

Wayne Caron, an assistant professor of family social science who teaches classes in intimate relationships, has witnessed many students navigate Internet dating successfully. Caron will be offering his insights during his lecture and discussion on "Love in the New Millennium: Electronic Dating. Gender Roles. Cyber-Sex. How have the rules for dating changed?" at 3:30 p.m. Thursday, February 16, in Room 2-137 Jackson Hall, 321 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis.

People used to make connections in person, but that is changing, Caron says. "Now, we are transacting our connections through the Internet," he says. But it raises questions. "What does it mean when I try to be loving through the keyboard? What do we mean by cybersex?"

When Haberman started researching cyber romance in 1999, there were few people using dating sites such as Match.com. "Now there are millions of people using it," she says.

"People are hardwired to emotionally connect with each other," says Caron. "Across history there have been different ways of doing this, and courtship has changed." Geography used to limit people in their connections, but technology has removed geographical barriers. "Long-distance relationships have become common. This is very different than 100 years ago when you dated someone in your own neighborhood or town," says Caron. In one of his classes of 300 students, Caron asked how many of them are in long-distance relationships. The answer: 172.

When Haberman started researching cyber romance in 1999, there were few people using dating sites such as Match.com. "Now there are millions of people using it," she says.

In her research, Haberman found that some people want an online relationship where they simply communicate with others via e-mail and never make the transition to an in-person relationship. Most people, however, are looking to get to know each other a little online and then take the relationship off-line, she says. "To help turn your online connection into a successful relationship, you should move it off-line within a month," Haberman says.

Caron agrees with this advice because being online with a person simply doesn't give people the whole picture of their love interest. "When you're on the Internet, it's just words. It's not as effective as being in the same room," he says.

On the Internet, people develop sound-byte presentations of themselves and online, people only see personas of another person rather than the real person, he says. "In a face-to-face meeting, you get past the personas and get past the first impressions," Caron says. For example, in online relationships when a person becomes crabby, they simply log off and the other person doesn't get to see that emotion.

Can couples achieve love or intimacy over the Internet?

"Intimacy is when two come together and become emotionally intertwined--when I feel bad, it hurts you," Caron says. In order for that to happen, both people have to disclose themselves. "Can you do that through text, phone, and letters only? Only to a limited extent," he says.

Cyber relationships simply have limits, says Caron. "You don't have what other couples have, like simply having quiet time when you're in the same room together. Just doing things like fixing dinner together is important," he says.

The progression of activities in traditional dating does not happen easily on the Internet. For example, usually friends and family meet someone's love interest and give feedback. "On the Internet, what the friends and family think is taken out of the equation," Caron says. "What are you going to do? Invite your mother into the chat room to meet your girlfriend?"

Cyber dating to some extent is still uncharted territory, Caron says. "On the Internet, you make up your own rules. You can literally have a love relationship with no one knowing about it," he says.

Haberman and Caron have seen healthy relationships develop from cyber romance, but both say those into Internet dating need to take precautions. Caron notes that some people get online with the intention of exploiting or abusing others, so everyone should be on guard. "You always need to be careful. When you go off-line, do the same thing you would as if you were on a traditional blind date--don't meet someone in a secluded place," Haberman says.

People who cyber date should realize that their Internet love interest may have more than one true love, Caron says. "In the [real world] multiple relationships would be nearly impossible to maintain, but in cyberspace some people have multiple relationships going on at one time and the Internet makes that all possible," he says.

For many people, Cyber dating provides a safer zone to make connections. Shy people and people who are lonely find it easier to connect online, he says. The Internet provides a vehicle to connect with others for people with disabilities or people who cannot get out in public as much as they grow older. "The Internet opens up the world to these people," Caron says.

So who is dating on-line?

"Internet dating seems to worked best for people in their 30s to people in their 60s," Haberman says. "They are the busy professionals who don't want to go to the bar to try to meet people." But as baby boomers grow older, Caron predicts that any online dating service that specializes in targeting elderly people will hit it big.

Haberman is also surprised to learn that many college students are also turning to cyberspace for dating. Students used to have numerous opportunities to meet people through classes, clubs, and activities, but that has changed. "Undergraduates no longer have the same lifestyle they once did. So many now have full-time or part-time jobs they don't have free time, so they are turning to the Internet to make connections as well," Haberman says.