Who really uses the Internet to make those "emotional connections" -- the young stud looking for a hit-and-run hookup?

Maybe. But Alicia Cast, associate professor of sociology at Iowa State University, says older adults who are too busy to find a relationship in the conventional way are turning to the Web -- and are largely successful in making desired connections.

"In many cases, there are some real structural forces that encourage the support and use of these technologies," says Alicia Cast. "And one of them is just structural constraints on people's time -- such as people who have kids, or have full-time jobs, or work long or extensive hours. They might also be older and the majority of people who are in their pool of eligibles are already in relationships."

Cast and her graduate research assistant, Jamie McCartney, collected data from approximately 175 central Iowa newlywed couples over a three-year period. Among the sample, 25 couples first met online-either through online dating, social networking sites, or some other online means.

Online daters didn't differ significantly from offline couples in terms of self-esteem levels, attractiveness, intelligence, and other personal characteristics, Cast says.

The research found that spouses who meet online are older, less likely to be marrying for the first time, and have much shorter courtships -- averaging 18.5 months of dating before getting married compared with 42 months for those who met in more traditional ways offline.

"There's an interesting contradiction there because the people who look online may not be perceived as being serious [by friends and family]," Cast says. "But the people who are doing the actual searching may look at it as a way to be incredibly serious about the process. And one of the things we found was that, indeed, their courtship periods are shorter."

McCartney first identified the online trend among the study's sample, which Cast says has afforded them a rare research opportunity.

"My understanding is that there are very few studies that have been able to simultaneously get access to a source of couples who meet through more conventional means, along with those who choose to meet people online," she says.

Cast and McCartney continue to analyze data from their newlywed sample and are planning to publish that study in a professional journal.

While her new research has found that people are using online means to find love, a previous study Cast conducted with David Schweingruber, ISU associate professor of sociology, suggests that a traditional proposal may have the most powerful impact when a couple decides to get married.

Their study of 2,174 Midwestern university students on audience judgments about engagement proposals -- published in the journal Sex Roles -- found that using traditional proposal elements -- making the proposal on bended knee with an engagement ring -- still sends the most positive messages about the strength of the couple's relationship to their family and friends.

"Taking to one's knee is still the gold standard, and so is a diamond [among the perceptions of friends and family]," Cast says.

"Most couples know what's going to happen and so issues of sizing rings and those kinds of things are largely done behind the scenes," she adds. "But if you have a partner who doesn't do that and surprises you, then there is this kind of public evaluation where it's not considered serious until you show them the ring."

The study also found that both men and women and older and younger individuals were likely to evaluate relationships based on their conformity to traditional proposal scripts.

Would-be daters writing to ConsumerAffairs.com drive home the point that one needs to be careful when looking for love online.

Laurie of Westwood, MI, calls eHarmony "a complete fraud." She contends "they have the most unethical sick practices I have ever seen. You will be scammed in every way. I found email addresses most bogus but I kept writing. I finally got a refund or at least they said they would give me one. I now have it in writing to provide to my credit card company."

"My profile (with Match.com) was never honored as promised," writes Steve of Breckenridge, CO. "Sent random photos of people not even close to my desired profile. When I complained, they said it would change, it never did. A big scam. On top of that they promised 6 months free after charging my credit card without authorization. I am out almost $100. The site creates a lot of frustration!"

Problems with online dating are nothing new. As long as four years ago, the state of Illinois was considering legislation to protect consumers using such services.