This year marks a decade of swipe-induced thumb strains, pathetic chat-up lines, and the curious invention of “ghosting.” Tinder is growing up. Unfortunately, this is not reflected in any type of accountability shown by those with power in today’s dating app industry.
The dating app invasion has produced many positive effects, such as the destigmatization of sex, the opportunity to explore new experiences and places, and the chance to form a lasting, loving relationship.
However, these positive aspects are overshadowed by a complete lack of psychological support that these apps should offer as part of their platforms.
The collective cabin fever of lockdown drove a 12 percent spike in Tinder conversations during the pandemic, but downloads have since fallen while rivals like Bumble and Thursday have seen steady growth. Tinder may not be the flavor of the month anymore, but dating apps remain hugely popular around the world.
Over the course of Tinder’s 10-year dominance, we’ve seen an increasing number of reports showing how these apps negatively impact our brain chemistry.
While we can’t overlook the fact that a number of successful relationships – and a third of marriages – stem from platforms like Tinder, the reality is that these apps’ business models depend on continuous swiping. If everyone who was on Tinder immediately found a deep, meaningful connection and then deleted it, we certainly wouldn’t be talking about a multi-billion dollar app 10 years later.
This is the troubling problem that underlies the general dating app system: it’s not geared towards creating healthy relationships and connections; Rather, it is designed to trigger the brain’s reward system.
When we get a notification that we’re matching someone, it causes a surge in dopamine, which in turn triggers a brief spurt of pleasure. Even simply browsing through a series of attractive faces on the app leads to increased activity in the region of our brain involved in reward processing. The increased unpredictability of the “match” mechanism only contributes to these elevated levels of dopamine.
There’s nothing inherently bad about stimulating dopamine production, and it feels great, at least in the short term. However, building our dopamine pathways in the unhealthy, excessive ways that dating apps encourage has a negative impact on people’s mental well-being in the long run.
While dating apps trigger the release of dopamine, they fail to activate the complementary opioid system, which springs to life whenever we experience high feelings of satisfaction and fulfillment. The intense high then wears off quickly, leaving you motivated to keep scrolling while chasing more of that feeling.
That being said, a 2016 study found that dating app users report lower self-esteem and psychosocial well-being compared to non-users.
Online dating also has a worrying association with increased rates of depression. This stems from the throwaway culture enabled by dating apps, where users are presented with a plethora of choices and the screen of the screen that allows them to “ghost” someone without fear of damaging their social reputation.
Dating apps have become melting pots of mental health issues and broken connections, and the blame lies squarely with those who run those apps. They must take responsibility for the impact their systems may have on user well-being and take steps to offer emotional, psychological and relational support.
The data leak, which flowed out of Ashley Madison, the extramarital affair platform, fueled allegations that the firm was faking female profiles to lure more men to the site. The company boasts a 70/30 split between women and men, but of the 35 million+ records that were leaked, only five million belonged to women. In 2014, the Federal Trade Commission accused JDI Dating, which operated 18 dating sites, of fraudulently notifying visitors of false, computer-generated profiles. An agreement has been reached prohibiting JDI Dating from using these fake, computer-generated profiles. That it happened at all epitomizes the prioritization of profits over user welfare that sadly permeates the dating app industry.
Therefore, educating users is crucial. That should come from the dating platforms themselves.
But while this continues to be neglected in favor of new growth strategies and higher profit margins, we must take steps of our own to become more confident.
When dating apps don’t offer this help, users need to seek support and learn what they can do to better protect themselves from the emotional and psychological issues that these platforms can foster.
That includes setting boundaries and being 100 percent clear about what you want when stepping into those apps, and not deviating from that in the name of the next short-lived dopamine hit.
There’s no shame in either looking for a one-night stand or wanting a long-term relationship, as long as we’re clear—both ourselves and others—why we’re 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 have real fun on these platforms.
We can achieve this by taking steps to do the necessary self-work and self-reflection before we plunge headlong into a battle that has been raging for more than a decade.