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Opinion: A big reason so many Americans are still single

Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an associate professor of communication at Fairleigh Dickinson University, writes about issues affecting women and social media. Her book, “Over the Influence: Why Social Media Is Toxic for Women and Girls — And How We Can Take It Back,” will be published by Alcove Press on March 5, 2024. Follow her on InstagramFacebook and X. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.

A record number of Americans are single this Valentine’s Day. In 2020 and 2021, the marriage rate hit the lowest numbers since the government began tracking it in 1867 — a trend that was well underway before the pandemic. According to research by the Pew Research Center, an unprecedented 25% of 40-year-olds have never been married. Those who are single are far less likely to be living with a romantic partner than they were in 1990.

Kara  Alaimo - Courtesy Kara Alaimo
Kara Alaimo - Courtesy Kara Alaimo

A paradoxical reason, I argue in my forthcoming book: Dating apps.

The conventional wisdom, of course, is that online dating has made it easier to meet people. While that may be true, few of these matches are leading to marriage — or even meaningful relationships. In 2019, only 12% of Americans had ever had a committed relationship with someone they met online.

In “Over the Influence: Why Social Media is Toxic for Women and Girls — And How We Can Take It Back,” I argue this is the case because dating apps don’t function as advertised. Their design prompts people to stay single and even to value the people they date less than they would if they didn’t think they had loads of other options on dating apps. But there are ways people can use them more strategically.

First, many dating sites ask users a slew of questions and claim they’ll use the answers to match them with the right people. OKCupid, for example, says it matches people based on the answers they provide on their views of “everything from pineapple on pizza to voting rights.” This flies in the face of decades of academic research. Unfortunately, people’s qualities can’t predict whether they’ll be compatible.

Second, plenty of other research tells us that when people are overwhelmed with choices, they respond by not choosing any of them. Dating sites give people the impression of having loads of options because there always seems to be another person to swipe on.

When people think they can easily find another romantic partner, they view the one they have less positively, are less committed to them and are more likely to break up with them. This can help explain why the women I interviewed for my book kept complaining that the men they matched with treated them so terribly. These days, practices like ghosting and “situationships” are a common part of the dating landscape. In “Nothing Personal: My Secret Life in the Dating App Inferno,” Nancy Jo Sales writes that the “destabilizing trend” women have faced in recent years is “the outrageous sense of entitlement and disrespect from the men they were dating and with whom they were having sex.”

Another reason, of course, is that when people meet online, they might have less reason to be concerned with their reputations. They may not have common friends or colleagues, think they’ll run into one another again if they don’t continue to date, or even know each other’s last names — all of which would otherwise act as incentives against behaving badly.

Of course, people of all genders sometimes treat one another awfully after matching online, but when strangers treat women cruelly or erratically, there are often added fears of sexual violence. While the risk of sexual violence isn’t exclusive to matchups that happen online, dating and other apps have made it easier than ever for strangers — including sexual offenders — to connect and arrange to meet in person. And, as I write in my book, I fear that all of the abuse women experience on social apps is normalizing the abuse of women offline.

Also contrary to conventional wisdom, research shows that women are less interested in dating than men. Only 38% of single women are looking to date or pursue a relationship, compared to 61% of single men, according to the Pew Research Center. Plenty of women I interviewed for my book told me they’d deleted their apps altogether after they got sick of being treated poorly. In particular, they said, many men strung them along by talking endlessly on these apps but never seemed to want to meet up in person — or, if they did meet up in person, often didn’t seem to have any interest in pursuing a relationship.

What should people looking for love do? Recognize that dating apps aren’t going to do your work for you. Invest time carefully reviewing and selecting profiles of people who look like they might be right for you. If you want to be in a committed relationship, state so on your profile and only pursue conversations and dates with people who appear to have the same goal. If they don’t seem serious, don’t take it personally — just delete them and move on.

One woman I interviewed for my book told me that once she started only going on dates with men she’d carefully filtered online, she found “we weren’t always a good fit, but the dates themselves gave me hope that there were still good men out there.” Last year, she married one of them.

Dating apps aren’t as smart as their creators may claim. Algorithms simply can’t set up soulmates — and even if they could, app makers wouldn’t have an incentive to match too many of them (they’d stand to lose users). But they’ve engineered the impression that it’s easy to find partners, which makes people less likely to end up in relationships. This means users looking for love need to first make a different commitment: carefully filter through loads of profiles.

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