Can Online Dating make You Depressed?

Anne Rettenberg wrote an article for Psychology Today that is critical of the idea of online dating [1], she cites one example of a man who visited a prostitute due to being depressed at his lack of success in online dating to support her claim.

The first big problem with her article is that she doesn’t mention the different experiences that male and female customers presumably have on online dating sites. I don’t know what it’s like for women on the dating sites so I can’t comment on that. But I’m sure that someone who works as a counselor could provide some useful insight into this matter. Also she didn’t even give a mention to the issue of gay/lesbian dating sites.

The next issue is that she didn’t offer any good advice for who should use online dating sites and what their aims should be.


In dating in real life (IRL) it’s expected that the man make the first move, and therefore women end up rejecting lots of guys for various reasons. Anne seems to think that rejection online is somehow worse than rejection IRL, it probably is for some people but that certainly isn’t the case for everyone. The way that lots of dating sites seem to work is that women place adverts, men respond to them, and then the women reply to a small subset of the email that they receive. “Rejection” in this case isn’t a matter of telling someone that you aren’t interested, but of merely not replying to their mail.

From my discussions with a few men who’ve used online dating sites the strategy seems to be to send out initial messages to a few dozen women every day and then maybe get a few responses a day. For the messages that get no response you will never know whether the other person found someone else first, wasn’t interested in you for some reason, or just didn’t bother checking their email. The only comparison to IRL rejection is that which happens after phone numbers have been exchanged, which isn’t going to be that common (and has the same issues regardless of how the people met).

Guys, relax about the women who don’t respond to your first message. They probably get 100+ responses to their advert and don’t have time to even read half of them. If you get rejected later in the process then you can look through your email archive at a later date to try and discover what went wrong.

The Aim of Online Dating

The fact that Anne’s client visited a prostitute suggests that maybe he wasn’t really after a relationship. In which case using one of the many online services for finding sex partners might have been a better option.

Generally it seems that a good strategy is to try and have fun. I don’t know any men who have married someone from a dating site, but the general opinion seems to be that they are still worth using. If you meet someone in a bar then you might end up having a drunken conversation that is drowned out by loud music. If you meet someone over the Internet then you can have a quiet conversation over the phone – which seems to be a better way to get to know someone (and generally more pleasant for anyone who’s not an alcoholic). I think that men who have no immediate aim other than finding someone nice to talk to will do better than those who aim to score quickly.

Of the men I know who married women they met over the Internet (but not through online dating sites) I wonder how many of them would have ended up married if they hadn’t used the online dating sites first. It seems that men who regularly communicate with women outside formal situations (work etc) will have a better chance of impressing someone that they like than those who lack such experience.


There are a lot of people who really can’t function in a bar. With the way our society works it seems that anyone who can’t handle the bar scene really should consider online dating.

How Counselors can Help

It seems to me that someone who is seeing a counselor and who is considering a new way of finding a SO should ask their counselor for advice first. It also seems to me that a good option might be to ask their counselor for advice in online dating. Instead of being unsuccessful and depressed a man who was seeing a female counselor could do well to ask her advice for how to impress women on the Internet. This is probably a business opportunity for female counselors who can advise men on such things, among other things it seems that seeing an “online relationship coach” would be perceived in a more positive manner than seeing a counselor or psychologist for the more traditional reasons.

10 comments to Can Online Dating make You Depressed?

  • I used quite a bunch of online dating sites over the last two years. Most of them suck. I found one that is actually quite good and tries hard but I won’t mention them since I don’t think anyone should be using them.

    They only made me miserable and depressed, for pretty much the reasons you mention above. I’d rather get some feedback than an apathetic nothing.

  • etbe

    In what forums would you get some useful feedback? It seems to me that the responses given to bar pickup attempts tend to be based on what’s easiest, claiming to have a boyfriend apparently works well.

    Some men would get angry if a woman in a bar gave them an honest explanation as to why she wasn’t interested. I expect that a large portion of the female population would be afraid to give honest feedback in such an environment.

    Do you think it would be good to have a feedback section on an online dating site? Technically it wouldn’t be difficult to compel the recipient of a message to at least tick a box indicating the reason for not wanting further contact (with a variety of options that are phrased in a positive manner). But I expect that some women would refuse to use such a site.

  • I sure could cite plenty examples of people gettting depressed after attempting romance in real life, myself very much included.

    I don’t think it has that much to do with online dating. People don’t like to be turned down in real life either. I’ve had much better luck with relationships that started online!

    I haven’t used dating websites, but I think meeting people online can be very good for people (especially computer geeks) who are shy in real life.

    The story reminds me of alarmist stories saying “Facebook is dangerous” because one or two people have committed suicide after being bullied on Facebook. I’m sympathetic to those victims, but millions have had the same experience in real life. I don’t think Facebook is a hotbed of bullying and deception. Whether people interact online or offline, they need confidence and friends to help them avoid depression.

    You can’t base a good argument on a random singular anecdote. If the psychologist had done a little survey to confirm or refute her theory, it would be more interesting.

    Even a small survey can give helpful insights, all you need is 100 or 200 people selected at random from the population in question. This won’t prove anything conclusively but give a fair clue whether you’re on the right track or not.

    The article in Psychology Today is entitled “Can Online Dating Make You Depressed?”. With such a silly title, I’m reluctant to read further. Of course online dating can make a person depressed! A million different things might make someone depressed. Online dating might also make you very happy.

    You have to have a good attitude, and be aware that there are trolls and rude people online, perhaps more so than in real life. If rude people didn’t reply to you, you’re lucky not to go on a date with them. I guess it’s like finding a job, you might have to look and apply for 50 or 100 jobs before you find a good one for you.

    I think trollage on IRC and mailing lists is much more likely to lead to anger, depression and suicide, compared to online dating and Facebook.

  • Also, I don’t like the implication that going to a prostitute is such a terrible thing to do. I think it would be much better than remaining lonely and depressed. Might quite likely be more helpful and therapeutic than visiting a psychologist, and maybe not so expensive!

    Maybe the guy in question had a guilt-complex or something.

  • etbe

    Sam: I’m deliberately not touching the issue of prostitution here, but I will say I think that it’s not something that can be addressed properly in a single sentence, it’s not a simple issue.

    You make a good point comparing the different varieties of “unfortunate/bad things that happen on the Internet are somehow different and worse than the same things happening IRL for the last 1000 years”.

    As for doing a survey, I think we should be charitable and assume that Anne based her article on her experience counselling many people and that she felt that the one example she cited was typical of things that can happen.

    The issue is what’s the best way of handling such things, could she offer better advice to her clients before they do such things? Could she assist them while they are doing it? There’s no reason why one of her clients couldn’t take a laptop into her office to use a dating site…

  • M. Bakker

    Online dating IS harmful for men. I learnt that the hard way 4 years ago; why is it that counselors are only NOW discovering this??

    Fact #1. Online dating sites are NOT interested in helping you establish a healthy relationship. They are interested in earning money.

    Dating sites make money through paying members or through advertisements. Both of these require that people stay on the site. Also, the more members a dating site has, the more members it will attract. Which brings us to…

    Fact #2. For online dating sites, it’s all about the membership count.

    Now, what happens when two people on a dating site establish a positive, healthy relationship…? The site LOOSES TWO MEMBERS!

    So instead of helping their members to create healthy relationships with people, dating sites will feed them a constant stream of false hope.

    On closing, I feel that if a counsellor is helping a customer who is too shy to work the bar scene, the counsellor should help the customer build up confidence. That will be a lot more helpful than writing endless messages to dead profiles.

  • etbe

    M: There are online dating sites that don’t aim to do the right thing. As a general rule of thumb any site based in Eastern Europe or which has exclusively women from that region should be avoided. Also sites that involve paying per message is a sign of a scam.

    Sites that involve a yearly membership seem to be more reliable. I am not aware of US based sites deliberately trying to avoid anyone getting a good result and leaving, perhaps you attribute to malice that which could be better explained by stupidity.

    Also I saw an article on Psychology Today suggesting that Psychologists could introduce their clients to each other – if a Psychologist has two single clients who have problems related to being single then introducing them could be the right thing to do.

    Finally, what do you suggest for people who have an aversion to alcohol or other good reason to avoid bars?

  • M. Bakker

    Big dating sites, like and eHarmony, are NOT stupid.

    They know full well that to keep the money flowing, they must minimize their members’ chance of establishing positive contact, but maximize their members’ inclination to go back and try again.

    Paid dating sites have an additional barrier in that only paying members can respond to messages. Often their “free members” can’t even READ the messages they receive. But the catch is: those sites DON’T tell you who the paying members are, so more often than not, you are writing a message that will never be read. This is one of the ways in which dating sites undermine the process of establishing contact. I can tell you some more if you’re interested.

    The key to making money with a dating site is to keep the members coming back. This happens if you feed them false hope… again and again and again and again… until they burn out. Who cares if, in the process, the online dater literally goes crazy from frustration? Not Greg Blatt or Sam Yagan, that’s for sure!

    Whether or not counsellors should introduce their clients to each other is a different topic, if you ask me. Interesting but I prefer not to get side-tracked for now.

    As for your last question, there are plenty of opportunities to meet people outside the bar scene. You know that as well as I do, so why are you asking? People can join an association, do volunteer work, take a course, join a meetup group….

    Over here in NL, I am a member of a website called NMLK. It’s members organize all kinds of activities. I have participated in things I didn’t even know existed. Best thing is, it’s NOT specifically for singles, which makes the atmosphere more relaxed. May I suggest you look for a service like that in your place? I believe it will be much more beneficial to your clients than the misery that is online dating.

  • etbe

    M: has a deal “find someone special in 6 months or get 6 months free”. I expect that only a small portion of the user-base will stick around for more than a year without getting a result. So the gains that they might make from milking the small number of people who will stay long-term will probably be outweighed by the benefits of getting good references from satisfied customers.

    I agree that some of the things that they do aren’t good for the customers. For starters it seems that most dating sites don’t advertise the prices in advance, you have to go through the search process or fill out a personality test before getting the opportunity to discover the price. Any company that won’t tell you their prices before starting the hard-sell is a bit dubious.

    In terms of writing a message that will never be read, men have to expect that whatever method they use to find a woman the hit rate will be low. In a bar you could expect to offer to buy drinks for dozens of women before getting a phone number. It seems that keeping the first message short enough that you won’t feel bad if it’s not read is a good tactic.

    There are a variety of social groups, but they will be of less use to people who have hobbies and interests that tend to be gender specific. Most men who are interested in computers or cars won’t find a woman who shares their interests. I married a member of my LUG, but the number of single women in that group is probably close to zero so other single men can’t expect to do the same.

    Back to Jonathan’s issue of wanting feedback, if a member of a social group or association isn’t interested then you still can’t expect honest feedback – but politeness rather than fear will probably be the motivation.

    The Google translation of the above NMLK page starts with “Are you a social animal?”. So obviously it’s not for the significant number of people who aren’t “social animals”.

    It seems to me that you are making the same mistake that Anne made in assuming that everyone can succeed in the bar environment etc.

  • M. Bakker

    I dislike the bar scene myself, and you mention a few of the things that I feel are wrong with it.

    My advice for singles (like myself) is to find something you might enjoy, preferably something you haven’t done before. A routine of gender-specific interests can be broken, it’s your own choice.
    Your new experience may not find you love, but it will enrich your life – even if you discover that you don’t like that new thing you tried. You still have a new conversation angle if you *do* meet a potential mate – and have become a bit more interesting yourself.

    I feel Jonathan’s comment supports my position against online dating. In the real world, there’s *always* feedback – you just have to pick up the clues. Not always an easy task, but the feedback is there. On a dating site, you never know if your message was even *seen*, let alone read. No feedback, no hints, no constructive criticism. Nothing.

    Regarding NMLK, thanks for checking it out. The translation is correct but I find the text poorly chosen; most NMLK members I’ve met tended towards introversion. It is possible however that, being somewhat introverted myself, I naturally chose the activities that attracted introverted people.

    Good references for dating sites? I get a lot of them, but without fail they come from people who have never been on those sites themselves!

    These people know someone who met a partner on a dating site, so they figure it works. Add to that the bombardment of commercials and advertisements for online dating services, and it’s easy to see how these people start believing that online dating works. Having been in a steady relationship for years themselves, they never suffer the real online dating “experience”. They never learn that online dating in the commercials is as different from the real thing as a Disney fairy tale from getting and maintaining a real relationship.
    Quoting Scott Adams in The Dilbert Principle: “A dollar spent on brainwashing is more cost-effective than a dollar spent on product improvement”.

    Regarding’s “next 6 months free”: do not for a moment assume that is interested in helping you find love! They’re a company, not a charity – all they care about is earning money.
    I have a hunch why has this offer, and why it is in 6-month terms. From my personal observations, within 6 months is about the time that people loose interest in online dating. By offering the next 6 months for free, members are given an incentive not to cancel just yet. This way the membership count stays up, and the member may forget to cancel before the term is over – or the member may decide to give it another chance in the mean time. Either way Match wins. (Yes, they’re clever. How else would they become a household name in an industry as competetive as online dating?)