Online Dating: Popular and Stigma Is Gone, but Don't Pay for It

PHOTO: Ilana Friedman, a 24-year-old singer from New York City, says shes dated a lot of "frogs" online.
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Ilana Friedman has met some losers using online dating sites -- so many that the New York City singer has created an entire cabaret act around her experiences, called "Kissing Frogs."

First there was the 29-year-old her mother found on The JMom.com -- his last girlfriend was his first cousin. "If he had been from Alabama, I could almost forgive it," quipped Friedman, 24. "But he was from Philadelphia."

Then, Friedman met a 36-year-old on another dating site who had lied about his age. She nearly canceled the date when he told her beforehand that he'd had an "inappropriate" dream about her. The next morning, he texted Friedman a "vulgar" photo of his naked body.

"I don't put any stock in [online dating] at all. It's like window-shopping -- fun, but not fulfilling," said Friedman. "But you never know if someone you meet is your soul mate."

Now researchers confirm that romance and dating has gone digital. It is the second most-popular way of connecting, surpassed only by meeting people through friends.

But, they caution, Internet dating is not scientific, and singles should not waste their time on websites that charge for their services.

A review of 400 psychology studies and public interest surveys was commissioned by the Association for Psychological Science and will be published in the February edition of its journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

"Online dating has entered the mainstream, and it is fast shedding any lingering social stigma," said researchers from the University of Rochester, Northwestern, Texas A&M, UCLA and Illinois State.

Dating sites don't have "published, peer-reviewed papers" to explain their methodology, and they do not explain in sufficient detail how people are matched, said the researchers.

"There is no particular reason for people to use sites that charge a lot of money to offer something they cannot deliver," said co-author Harry Reis, a nationally known relationship expert and professor of psychology at the University of Rochester.

However, he said online dating does provide wider opportunities to meet people.

"The Internet holds great promise for helping adults form healthy and supportive romantic partnerships, and those relationships are one of the best predictors of emotional and physical health," he said.

When dating online, it's fine to rule out those who have unsuitable habits, such as smoking, or belong to a different religion, but beyond that, making a check list "leaves out the magic another person can bring to you," said Reiss.

"We suggest they try not to have the shopping mentality and not view alternative people the same way they do a pair of pants," he said.

Instead of checking off the different qualities to look for in a mate, imagine talking to the person or going on a vacation with them, he said.

And don't look at more than a "handful" of profiles in a given city. "With 250 profiles to go through in 20 minutes, you can't have a check list," said Reiss.

As for what makes a good match, "You can't quantify it," Reiss said. "You can define it, but we do not know how it occurs and where it comes from. ... Science isn't there yet."

Earlier research found that in the early 1990s, less than 1 percent of those seeking relationships met through personal ads or other commercial intermediaries. But by 2005, 37 percent of Internet users said they had dated someone they'd met online.

The review also noted that men were still the aggressors when it came to dating, at least online.

One 2010 study of 6,485 users of a major online dating site found that men viewed three times more profiles than women did. Men were also 40 percent more likely to initiate contact with a woman after viewing a profile.

But one online dating service says the science is somewhat irrelevant -- it's the matches that matter.

Brad Weisberg, co-founder of Chicago-based JMom.com, said his site uses "old-school traditional values" to make matches. It charges between $10 and $18 a month for a subscription.

Jewish mothers can post photos of their families and look for commonalities in their children's education, values and personalities.

"When I talk to my mom and dad, they tell me that when they were growing up, they stayed local," Weisberg, 30, whose own mother pried into his online dating life and gave him the idea for the site, said.

"Today, it's the exact opposite," he said. "People are working longer hours, and it's expensive to date. It's not as easy, and this is another avenue to meet people."

Weisberg said he doesn't "discredit" the study, but "every website you go to there's likely been a marriage -- something's gone right for that to happen."

The JMom has an upcoming wedding. And there are other "success" stories.

Dr. Elana Katz met her fiance of three years on Match.com when she was in medical school in Philadelphia.

"We both had a week left on our memberships and were pretty fatigued from online dating," she said. "To make matters worse, the restaurant we went to was awful."

But later they bonded at a live jazz club and when Katz was transferred to Seattle for a medical residency, her fiance eventually quit his job and joined her. They will marry in June, "with his mother's diamond," she said.

According to a two-year study at Stanford University, from 2007-2009, 61 percent of all same-sex couples found romance online, and that number is rising.

Rex Isenberg, a 24-year-old classical composer from New York City, met his "wonderful boyfriend" of more than a year on J-Date.

"I was skeptical at first, but [my cousin] persuaded me to do it by telling me that she met her husband on J-Date, and that they have been happily married for nearly 10 years," he said. "I told her I would try it for one month, and if it didn't work, I would revert to traditional methods of seeking out dates."

Within a month, he met his soul mate, a researcher at MTV, who's also 24.

Meredith Eschauzier of Weymouth, Mass., now the mother of a 2-year-old daughter, has her own happy story. She met her husband, Ryan, a high school teacher on eHarmony.com.

"The questionnaire was lengthy, but I didn't mind filling it out and being completely honest," said Eschauzier, 34. "I don't think I chatted with very many people before Ryan."

They talked for hours when they finally met and have ever since.

"As for 'soul mate,' I don't really use that term," she said. "But he is the perfect match for me. Our personalities complement one another. We grew up in similar types of families, had similar educations, views on life, senses of humor. We are very happy."

As for Ilana Friedman, she hasn't given up on Internet dating but agrees with the researchers that "there is no science behind it at all." But she believes it works in a busy world.

"It's easy," she said. "It takes three minutes to put together a profile. People are so career-focused in New York, and it's kind of isolating," she said.

"They go out on the weekend with a friend and have a good time at a bar and get trashed. They might meet someone and hook-up, but not date them. "I have a girlfriend who gets online after every breakup just so guys can boost her confidence," she said.

Friedman said her frogs won't stop her from using OK Cupid.com, which is free. "I dated omeone who was the potential love of my life last year," she said, "though it didn't work out."

And the online matches have given her great fodder for her career -- on April 10, "Kissing Frogs" opens at the Laurie Beechman Theatre in New York City.

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