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updated 2/12/2010 8:09:25 PM ET 2010-02-13T01:09:25

Ten years ago, when Jane Coloccia posted her first profile at Match.com, online dating was in its relative infancy, with just five years of history under its virtual belt.

"Since then I've dated 200 guys, including stalkers, men who were thinner or older than they wrote, and a garbage man who, after four break ups, literally dumped me," said Coloccia, author of "Confessions of An Online Dating Addict: A True Account of Dating and Relating in the Internet Age."

Coloccia, a New Jersey-based marketing consultant, told Discovery News that she became addicted to receiving up to 100 emails daily "from men saying things like, 'Oh, you're so pretty and I want to date you,'" which sometimes led to three different dates in a day over breakfast, lunch and dinner.

"It feeds a neediness of wanting someone to love you," she explained.

While Coloccia's experiences may show the more extreme side of online dating, millions of other people have found relationships over the Internet. But are those relationships any more successful than those started the traditional way? Is this form of dating really the hotbed of love and romance suggested by the catchy television commercials?

Statistics on the success of online dating remain questionable, but research has shown that if people can navigate the sometimes murky arena of online dating, it can prove to be a helpful tool for finding life partners.

Not necessarily tall, dark and handsome
Online dating can be misleading from the get-go, starting with people's dating profiles, research shows.

Nicole Ellison and her colleagues measured the difference between dating profile "facts" and reality by comparing posted information with what was on the test subject's drivers' license. She told Discovery News the study revealed "most people lie about at least one characteristic."

Ellison is an assistant professor in the Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies and Media at Michigan State University.

About 52.6 percent of the men in the study lied about their height, as did 39 percent of the women. More women, on the other hand — 64.1 percent — lied about their weight. Age in profiles is also suspect, since 24.3 percent of the men and 13.1 percent of women were untruthful about their age. Despite such fibbing, the researchers were surprised that it wasn’t more rampant.

Co-author Jeffrey Hancock said, "Participants balanced the tension between appearing as attractive as possible, while also being perceived as honest."

Irresistible to married people
If mister or miss right does surface, he or she might already be married.

"Never before has the dating world been so handy for married men and women looking for a fling," said Beatriz Avila Mileham, who studied online infidelity while at the University of Florida. "With cybersex, there is no longer any need for secret trips to obscure motels. An online dating liaison may even take place in the same room with one's spouse."

Eighty-three percent of Mileham's study participants said they did not consider themselves to be cheating. One married man, for example, wrote: "I'm not going to cheat. I'm just capturing back some of those butterflies we feel when we're young and start flirting and dating."

It remains to be seen, however, if such online flirtations relieve marital stress and strengthen existing relationships.

Al Cooper, author of the book "Sex and the Internet: A Guidebook for Clinicians," suggests they don't. He said, "We are hearing from therapists around the country reporting online sexual activity to be a major cause of marital problems."



Some singles benefit
Despite the pitfalls of online dating, experts say certain people may benefit.

Ellison, for example, said she "interviewed one woman who worked in the fashion industry in Los Angeles, where most of her professional contacts were gay men." Ellison added, "I think people that are most likely to benefit from online dating are those that have exhausted their traditional social circles, such as friends of friends, and those that are in professions, or (have) other constraints, that limit their ability to encounter new people on a regular basis."

Andrew Fiore, a University of California at Berkeley researcher who studies online dating, says, "members of minority groups looking for people like themselves might find online dating more useful than others."

He pointed out that some sites cater to specific groups, such as Jewish people or Indians/Indian-Americans. "JDate has a field for the particular sect of Judaism, and Shaadi.com lets users indicate their caste and skin complexion, variables not included in most mainstream dating sites," he said.

Fiore's team also recently determined what factors predict whether or not any one person receives a reply from someone contacted through an online dating service.

"By far the most important predictors were whether you are within the preferred age range and whether you belong to a preferred ethnicity of the person you contacted, as indicated on his or her profile," he said.

Fiore and his team also discovered that "popular people," or those who receive unsolicited attention from others on the site, were less likely to reply. "In a bar or at a party, it's obvious if someone is surrounded by a crowd of people," he said. "Maybe you would approach somebody slightly less magnetic but more available. Online, you can't tell."

Questionable marriage statistics
EHarmony's internal research group is one of the few to compare the success of traditional matchmaking with Web services, Fiore said.

A 2004 study presented at the Annual Convention of the American Psychological Society by eHarmony's Steve Carter and Chadwick Snow shows "significantly higher levels of relationship satisfaction for married couples who met through eHarmony as compared to a group who met offline," according to Fiore, who added that the conclusion is flawed.

As it turns out, "the eHarmony couples had known each other for about nine months total at the time of the study, as compared to five years for the offline sample," Fiore told Discovery News. "Of course the couples who have been dating for less than a year are going to be more satisfied than those who have been dating longer — it's the 'honeymoon effect.'"

In 2005, University of Bath researcher Jeff Gavin and his team proclaimed that Internet dating is "much more successful than thought," after conducting a survey of U.K. dating site users. Perhaps the analysts went in with low expectations since, by the end of the survey, only 39 percent of the relationships were still active, with just 8 percent of that group in matches that had lasted over two years.

Whether relationships began traditionally or online, those who are getting married, for the most part, aren't staying married.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has tracked the ratio of annual divorces to marriages over the years. While the rate has mostly held steady in the United States, there was an upswing in numbers of U.S. divorces per marriages during the five years after Match.com ushered in the online dating scene, according to the bureau's report "Marriage and Divorce Rates by Country: 1990 to 2005." Though there's no data on whether the two are linked.

A tool, not a replacement
Since 1995, Match.com has attracted millions of members, according to InterActiveCorp, which owns the site. The company boasts that these "millions turn to" the service "to fix their dating troubles and transform dating slumps into romantic bliss."

Ellison tempers such enthusiasm. "I think online dating can be a great tool for individuals, but it's not the only tool and will be more helpful to some," she said.

If "love at first email" doesn't happen, relentless persistence may provide the key to happily ever after, if relationship satisfaction and long-term pairings are the goals.

After her hundreds of dates, Coloccia finally found the man of her dreams, Victor. They will marry in May. After hitting it off with Victor over the Internet, Coloccia discovered that they often crossed paths "frequenting the same Barnes & Noble, the same Starbucks and other favorite stops."

Online services don't have to worry about losing her business, however. She and Victor have already posted their gift registry at the Wedding Channel.

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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