Even though most people meet their partners offline, it has become more common to meet someone online. But is meeting a partner online associated with different family-related outcomes than of those of who meet offline? Mirkka Danielsbacka (University of Turku), Antti O. Tanskanen (University of Turku) and Francesco Billari (Bocconi University) looked at this question and examined different outcomes. These included relationship satisfaction, intention to separate, actual separation, moving in together, intention to have a child, and entry into parenthood in Germany.
The study is one of the few to look at individuals who actually found a long-term partner online in Europe. Using a unique dataset, the Panel Analysis of Intimate Relationships and Family Dynamics (Pairfam), the researchers had access to longitudinal data on three German birth cohorts born in 1971-1973, 1981-1983 and 1991-1993. The first Pairfam wave was conducted in 2008–2009, when the cohort members were aged approximately 15-17, 25-27 and 35-37 respectively. Further data collections were conducted annually. In the present study only heterosexual respondents who had a partner in the first wave, or who met a partner during waves two through eight, and who have data on all variables studied were included. These restrictions result in a sample of 37,616 observations from 8,177 persons.
By utilising the longitudinal nature of the panel data, the study finds that those who met online seem to be more interested in having children in comparison to those who met offline. Meeting online compared to offline is associated with higher intentions to have a child among the youngest birth cohort, and with a higher likelihood to actually have a first child among the oldest birth cohort.
In addition, online partnering is associated more often with separation than offline partnering but only for the youngest birth cohort. This is in line with the assumption that individuals in the youngest cohort may be seeking more short-term than long-term relationships online. However, meeting online was not associated with relationship satisfaction, moving in together, or intentions to separate in any of the birth cohorts.
The study shows that even if meeting a partner online plays a role in family-related outcomes, cohorts also matter. According to outcomes studied here, respondents in the youngest birth cohort tend to be more heterogeneous in regard to the type of relationship they are looking for. Those from the oldest birth cohort tend to be more homogenous in their characteristics and in the search for more stable relationships.