In the online dating jungle, the digital natives are friendly

ONLINE dating is no longer just the refuge of older divorcees. Steph Wyllie, a veterinary science student, is one of the fresh-faced twentysomethings searching for love in their natural habitat - the virtual world.

Ms Wyllie is part of what experts are describing as a ''fundamental shift'' in the way young people interact and date, with an increasing volume of casual relationships and opportunities for sex.

This month the Facebook application ''Bang With Friends'' hit the online market. The US-designed app, which reportedly gained more than 260,000 users in the first eight days, encourages one-night stands between online ''friends'' who anonymously choose each other to ''bang''.

Since joining an Australian online dating site a month ago, Ms Wyllie, 22, has received 150 virtual ''kisses'' from potential beaus, answered six emails and gone out on four dates.

But Ms Wyllie, from the northern beaches, said young people were not necessarily going on the site for casual sex. ''I was worried about that,'' she said. ''It has a reputation, but it's not the case.''

Ms Wyllie had thought ''only losers'' went on dating sites.

''I wasn't going on there going, 'I want a boyfriend'. I'm on uni holidays at the moment and just looking for some fun.''

Dr Amanda Third, from the Institute for Culture and Society at the University of Western Sydney, said a ''migration'' of young people to internet dating, once reserved for older, often divorced, singles, has taken place in the past two years.

''Social media has really transformed the way that dating takes place,'' she said. ''You can know more about someone before you make the first move.''

Peter Jonason, a lecturer of psychology at the University of Western Sydney, said people feel anonymous online, and therefore safer.

''There is the fear of rejection and not wanting to get shot down in flames,'' he said.

''Online dating is a fundamental shift of the way in which we find mates and find love.'' Dr Jonason said a male suitor can contact up to 500 single women online in one month.

''There is a large degree of [hooking up] behind it,'' he said.

Dating sites RSVP, Oasis Active and eHarmony have all reported an increase in the people aged 18 to 25 and 26 to 30 joining their websites.

Over five years, RSVP has seen the amount of people aged 18 to 25 joining the site grow by 201 per cent, a spokeswoman said.

RSVP, owned by Fairfax Media, would not provide raw numbers, but said it has 450,000 new members join every month.

Two years ago Oasis Active had almost 11,000 people aged 18 to 25. Last month, this increased to almost 16,000.

The dating site currently has 50,000 new members joining each month.

Dr Jonason said online dating, however, can also offer people ''too much choice'' and is likely to lead to destructive relationships. ''When we have too many options, it lowers relationship satisfaction.''

Sharing too much information online can also lead to ''scaring away'' any potential partners, he said.

''Facebook is like a poison for our relationships.''

Dr Third said the negative connotations attached to online dating had fallen away.

This story In the online dating jungle, the digital natives are friendly first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.