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Can Using Online Dating Apps Be Addictive?

Research explores if some people are more prone to compulsive dating app use.

rawpixel via pixabay | CC0 license
Source: rawpixel via pixabay | CC0 license

While online dating sites have been around since the 1990s, mobile dating apps are a more recent phenomenon, with Tinder leading the charge in 2012. Tinder is hugely popular – it currently has 57 million users worldwide, recording 1.6 billion swipes per day.

Researchers have been quick to respond to this trend, exploring people's motivations for using Tinder, how people manage the impressions they make on other users, and how Tinder's unique features meet daters' needs. In a study just published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Kathryn Coduto and colleagues examined problematic, compulsive use of dating apps, and whether socially anxious or lonely people are especially prone to compulsive use.

What's So Special About Tinder?

For those of you who aren't familiar with mobile dating apps, here's how Tinder works: Users download the app on their smartphone and complete a short bio and add photos. The app then matches them with local singles who are in their immediate geographic area by using GPS technology on users' phones. Users can view a whole series of photos, swiping right if they like what they see and swiping left if they don't. If both parties swipe right, it's a match, and they have the ability to initiate further contact.

Online dating has a number of benefits, as well as drawbacks. As I detailed in an earlier post, online dating can introduce us to a wide range of people and remove some of the ambiguity of face-to-face situations because you know everyone on the site is single and looking. Online dating can also be a more comfortable way to meet people for those who are shy or socially anxious. On the other hand, online dating can overwhelm people with too many options and create pressure to turn relationships romantic quickly. Online profiles also provide only curated and superficial information about people and put too much emphasis on physical appearance. They could also potentially become a crutch that prevents singles from searching for dates offline. Tinder has many of these same costs and benefits, but it also has several important differences.

Lik Sam Chan has described how Tinder differs from traditional online dating sites in a number of ways that could lead to compulsive use of the app:

  1. Mobility: People take their phones everyone, so they can access the app at any time, increasing the temptation to constantly check it.
  2. Proximity and Immediacy: Tinder uses current location (via the phone's GPS) to find matches, and users know that anyone they match with is in the immediate vicinity and is swiping at the same time as they are. This proximity and immediacy can create an expectation that users should be immediately jumping into romantic encounters. This is why Tinder has a reputation as a "hookup" app. Users might feel that if they aren't using the app all the time, they are missing out on potential matches, and this can promote compulsive use.
  3. Visual dominance: While all internet dating puts a focus on photographs and can cause users to overemphasize looks, it's more extreme with Tinder. On Tinder, the photo fills your phone's entire screen, and viewing the whole profile is optional. Combined with the game-like nature of swiping left or right on photos, this can cause people to compulsively swipe, hoping to obtain the highest number of matches possible.

Who Is Most Likely to Use Tinder Compulsively?

Coduto and colleagues wanted to explore who is most at risk of using Tinder compulsively. Past research has shown that people who are socially anxious often feel safer and more comfortable interacting online, where they have more control over the interaction. Lonely individuals may also use online interactions to compensate for a lack of social connection offline. While that, in and of itself, is not necessarily a problem, these individuals might be especially prone to use online interaction compulsively. When someone is using technology compulsively that means that it's really interfering with their daily functioning, such as in school, work, or social relationships. Those whose social anxiety or loneliness causes them to gravitate toward the relative safety of Tinder may be at greater risk of succumbing to its addictive qualities.

The Study

In their research, Coduto and colleagues surveyed 269 undergraduate students who had experience using dating apps. Respondents completed questionnaires assessing social anxiety and loneliness. They also report on their use of these apps. Specifically, the researchers assessed three elements of app use:

  1. Preference for online over face-to-face interaction: Participants indicated the extent to which they were more confident socializing on dating apps than offline, felt safer starting conversations on dating apps, and felt they were treated better on apps than in offline romantic situations.
  2. Compulsive use of dating apps: Participants indicated how much they felt that they had difficulty controlling their use of the apps or described their own use as compulsive.
  3. Negative outcomes resulting from dating app use: Participants indicated how often they missed work, school, or social events because of using the app, and the extent which they felt worthless offline but felt like "someone" online.

Consistent with past research on social anxiety and online interactions, participants high in social anxiety indicated that they had a greater preference for using dating apps. Those who are often uncomfortable in traditional face-to-face dating contexts felt more at ease interacting with potential dates from behind their smartphone screen. However, socially anxious people were not significantly more likely to engage in compulsive use of dating apps.

The results for loneliness were more complicated. Loneliness wasn't necessarily associated with compulsive use of dating apps, but the combination of high levels of loneliness and a strong preference for interacting via dating apps predicted problematic use. Essentially, lonely people who also felt more comfortable on the apps were particularly prone to compulsive use.

Taken together, this research shows that Tinder has some addictive qualities – but like anything with addictive qualities, some people are more seduced by them than others. And lonely people in particular, if they find it easier to interact via these apps, may be most at risk of abusing them.

More from Gwendolyn Seidman Ph.D.
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