Up to three-quarters of single people could soon be finding new partners online – and many could form long-lasting relationships

By Steve Bloomfield

Online dating, once seen as a last resort for the desperate, has become mainstream, with new research suggesting as many as six million Britons are signed up to internet agencies.

To underline the internet’s emergence as a legitimate way of meeting a partner, a second academic study suggests relationships borne out of online dating are now likely to be as long lasting as those of couples who meet in more traditional ways.

There are now 150 online dating agencies in the UK alone, up 20 per cent in just 12 months, according to a report by Hitwise, the body that analyses levels of internet usage. It found that online agencies are growing at a rate of 30 a year, with people in London and the South-east making up a third of all UK users. Fifteen per cent are based in the Midlands and 11 per cent in the North-west.

People aged between 25 and 34 make up the largest group of users at 29 per cent, with 35- to 44-year-olds representing 26 per cent of the market. A significant number of online daters – 18.5 per cent – are aged 18 to 24, while one in 10 is aged over 55.

The 30-somethings tend to have been dating for more than a decade and are tired of looking for new people at work or in bars and clubs.

Academic research led by Richard Scase, professor of organisational behaviour at Kent University, shows dramatic year-on-year increases in the number of people turning to the internet to find new partners.

“Two-thirds to three-quarters of single men and women will be members soon,” Professor Scase said. “There are about six million using these services now and by 2005 there will be seven million.”

The three biggest online dating agencies, Dating-Direct.com, Udate and Match.com, all claim to have more than a million active members each.

Samantha Bedford, managing director of Udate, said: “There is this big pool of people to choose from online, instead of having to just settle for that new guy in your department. You don’t have to trawl the bars and you don’t have to go through the embarrassment of being turned down.”

Online dating is partly fuelled by the rise in the number of single people. There are currently around 11 million singletons under 55 in the UK; that figure is expected to rise to 16 million by 2010.

The boom has led to services springing up to cater for those who don’t like the idea of a mass-market agency. Last week saw the launch of Compa.co.uk, a group dating website that matches circles of single women with a similar group of men in an attempt to remove the potential for awkwardness on a normal one-to-one date.

The more confident single person can always join Gorgeous Networks – or they can at least try. Classing itself as an exclusive club, Gorgeous Networks asks prospective members to place a picture and profile of themselves on the site. Current members are then given the opportunity to decide whether they should be allowed to join.

Researchers at Bath University claim that couples whose eyes meet over a crowded chatroom will stay together for an average of seven months. The Bath report’s co-author, Dr Jeff Gavin, said: “It’s clearly now an everyday activity, and our research shows that the relationships it produces are no better or worse than traditional relationships.”

Source: The Independent Online