Dating apps are now a firmly established part of the dating scene. These include Tinder, Bumble, Hinge and a range of others suited to different tastes. The basis of these apps is simple. Users can create a profile by uploading several photos, along with a short text description. This becomes visible to other users who can then "like" or "dislike" the profile.
When two users like each other, they can start text messaging on the app. Popular dating apps such as Tinder now have over 50 million active users, with some reports noting that the average user spends a whopping 90 minutes per day on the app.
These dating apps represent a significant new social phenomenon; a far cry from the singles bars and social mixers of times past. Interestingly, the impact of dating apps on mental health has been under-researched, but some preliminary evidence suggests they may cause issues.
Some research indicates that dating apps expose users to considerable rejection. One study found a low rate of matching, particularly for men. This study also found that around 50 percent of matches do not message back. Hence, dating app users are constantly being "disliked" and ignored.
Worse still, many users report that first dates are often awkward, crude, and unrewarding. In my own research, people report many demoralizing experiences in this new dating world, noting that in-person realities can be wildly different from online personas.
Indeed, a common experience reported by many people who use dating apps is "ghosting"; the sudden ending of a developing relationship without explanation or forewarning. This can be a dehumanizing and damaging mental health experience.
These experiences are encapsulated in the entertaining yet touching short film below, exploring themes of connection and rejection which recently premiered at the Au Contraire Film Festival in Montreal. A man and woman hit it off online and agree to meet for a first date. What happens when they meet in person? Watch it and see a poignant reality that is played out daily.
These negative experiences can lead users to question their physical appearance, conversational skills, and the general reliability of the opposite sex. Indeed, a University of North Texas study found that dating app users report lower self-esteem and lower psychosocial well-being than non-users. This could be related to frequent and regular rejection.
Indeed, dating apps could contribute to a culture of human disposability, with users becoming part of a "throwaway society." All this may be driven by a "tyranny of choice." Dating apps have millions of users, and users may be simultaneously messaging many other users. This can lead to a superficial breadth, rather than meaningful depth, of connections.
In fact, this overwhelming choice can lead to endless self-questioning regarding dating options. Many users may constantly be asking themselves, "Is there someone better than this on the next swipe?"—leading to a merry-go-round of dissatisfying brief relationships.
Anonymity and Deceit
In times past, men and women tended to meet at work, through mutual friends, or at social venues such as church or sports clubs. In other words, their relationship was rooted in a pre-existing social ecology where others could generally be trusted. This could inhibit contemptible dating behavior as wrongdoers faced opprobrium from the pre-existing community.
However, no such social ecology exists within the world of dating apps. On the contrary, some dating app users can hide under a cloak of anonymity or deceit. This can include deception about personal characteristics such as age or profession, as well as dishonesty regarding intentions.
Again, experience of such deceit may be damaging to mental health, leading to painful emotions, less trust, and more self-doubt. This can interact with a cycle of constant rejection, overwhelming choice, and transient relationships—all contributing to a lower sense of psychological well-being.
To be sure, dating apps can open up a whole new world to people seeking new friends and connections. They may be especially useful for people who are lonely and introverted, or for those who are traveling or new in town.
That said, dating apps do have a shadow side and may not be for the sensitive or faint of heart.
Proceed with care.