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December 27, 2013

More daters turn to Web but still keep lips zipped

Online dating: More and more people are doing it, but no one wants to talk about it. On the record, that is.

A recent Pew study found that 11 percent of American adults have used online dating sites or mobile apps — a figure that was just 3 percent five years ago. Among Internet users who were currently single and looking for a partner, 38 percent had tried online dating.

Yet, according to the Pew study, 21 percent of Internet users agree with the statement: "People who use online dating sites are desperate." Pew notes that's an eight-percentage-point decline from 2005. Still, there seems to be lingering judgment about using a smartphone to find someone to love.

"I think people don't like to admit that they are having trouble in their romantic life," said Eli Finkel, a social psychology professor at Northwestern University. "That concern is misplaced. It is totally normal to figure out who is compatible for you."

Finkel, who with several colleagues published a critical analysis of online dating last year, has become a cheerleader of sorts for the practice. "In general, it is a great thing that exists."

Reggie, a 20-something operations manager for a nonprofit organization — who, like all the dating app users we talked to, preferred to give only his first name and occupation as biographical details when talking about the subject — said he tends to keep online dating out of most in-person conversations. Most of his friends do the same.

"We don't want to put something that is supposed to be like a dating, personal ad into our real world," he says. "I think that delineation, that separation from online-date persona and in-person social situations, is a real thing."

He also separates his online dating from his social-media activity. It's a form of image management, like his adherence to the "mom rule": keeping an online presence that he wouldn't be embarrassed for his mother to see.

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