This year marks a decade of swiping-induced thumb stretches, creepy conversation jokes, and the curious invention of “ghosting”. Tinder is growing. Sadly, this was not mirrored by any kind of accountability displayed by the powers that exist in today’s dating app industry.
There are a number of positive effects that have been generated by the invasion of dating apps, such as a destigmatization of sexuality, the opportunity to explore new experiences and places, and the possibility of forging a lasting and loving relationship.
However, these positives are overshadowed by a complete lack of psychological support these apps are supposed to offer as part of their platforms.
The collective block fever led to a 12% increase in conversations on Tinder during the pandemic, but downloads have since dropped while competitors like Bumble and Thursday have enjoyed continued growth. Tinder may no longer be the flavor of the month, but dating apps remain hugely popular around the world.
Over the course of Tinder’s 10-year dominance of the market, we’ve seen a growing number of reports showing the ways these apps negatively impact our brain chemistry.
While we shouldn’t overlook the fact that a number of successful relationships – and a third of marriages – trace their origins to platforms like Tinder, the reality is that these apps’ business models depend on continuous scrolling. If everyone who went to Tinder immediately found a deep and meaningful connection and then deleted it, we certainly wouldn’t find ourselves talking about a multi-billion dollar app 10 years later.
This is the troubling issue at the heart of the overall dating app system: it’s not geared towards creating healthy relationships and connections; rather, it is designed to activate the brain’s reward system.
When we get a notification that we have matched someone, it causes a dopamine spike, which in turn stimulates a brief injection of pleasure. Even the simple act of looking through a series of attractive faces on the app causes increased activity in the region of our brain involved in reward processing. The increased unpredictability of the “match” mechanism only increases these heightened dopamine levels.
There is nothing inherently bad about stimulating dopamine production and, at least in the short term, that’s fantastic. However, building our dopamine pathways in the unhealthy and excessive way that dating apps encourage negatively impacts people’s mental well-being in the long run.
While dating apps trigger dopamine release, they fail to induce the complementary opioid system into action, which roars to life whenever we have a high sense of satisfaction and fulfillment. The intense high then quickly wears off and you are therefore motivated to keep flowing as you chase more of that feeling.
Aside from that, a 2016 study found that dating app users report lower levels of self-esteem, along with reduced psychosocial well-being, compared to non-users.
Online dating also has a troubling association with rising depression rates. This stems from the throwaway culture facilitated by dating apps, where users are presented with choice overload and the screen shield, which allows them to “ghost” someone without fear of damaging their social reputation.
Dating apps have turned into crucibles of mental health problems and broken connections, and the blame lies firmly with those who run these apps. They must take responsibility for the impact their systems can have on users’ well-being and take steps to offer emotional, psychological, and relational support.
The data leak from Ashley Madison, the extramarital affairs platform, reinforced allegations that the company was faking female profiles to attract more men to the site. The company boasts a 70/30 split between women and men, but of the more than 35 million leaked records, only five million belonged to women. In 2014, the Federal Trade Commission accused JDI Dating, which operated 18 dating sites, of sending fraudulent messages to visitors from fake computer-generated profiles. It has reached an agreement that prohibits JDI Dating from using these fake computer generated profiles. That it happened, however, embodies the priority of profits over user well-being that sadly pervades the dating app industry.
Education for users is therefore essential. This should come from the dating platforms themselves.
However, while this continues to be overlooked in favor of new growth strategies and higher profit margins, we must take steps ourselves to become more self-aware.
If dating apps won’t provide this help, users need to seek support and learn what they can do to better protect themselves from the emotional and psychological issues these platforms can foster.
This involves setting limits and being 100% clear about what you want when logging into these apps, and not deviating from that in the name of the next short-lived dopamine hit.
There is no shame in seeking a one night stand or in wanting a long-term relationship, as long as we are clear, both to ourselves and to others, as to why we are looking for it.
Dating apps are turning into emotional war zones. It is therefore up to us to strengthen our psychological defenses and strengthen our mental arsenals as much as possible and allow us to really enjoy ourselves on these platforms.
We can achieve this by taking steps to do the personal work and self-reflection we need, before plunging headlong into a battle that has raged for more than a decade.