The Psychological Effects
of Online Dating

‘Millennial culture’ needs no introduction. Much like everything else that we do, dating has also moved online. In early 1995, an online dating service, called match.com went live, since then online dating has become a social phenomenon that has intercepted our smartphones, our daily routines, and our relationships, forging a 2.5 billion dollar industry from our consistent usage. The bank, TSB has discovered that dating apps now contribute £11.7 billion to the UK.

Tinder, which now has over 50 million users, has previously taken the #1 spot on Apple’s Top Grossing app chart, beating the likes of Candy Crush and Netflix, prompting the company to launch a $5 subscription service called Tinder Gold, and parent company Match Group, which incidentally also owns match.com, to hit an all-time high.

A recent report from the OECD suggests that today’s young adults have 7% more than members of Generation X had when they were in the same age bracket, and over 40% more disposable income than Baby Boomers had in their youth. Whilst Generation Y and Z prove to be doing significantly better than their parents were at their age, perhaps as a result of their economic and social climates, the simple fact that their upbringing has coincided with the development of smartphones and social media, has given way to them being attached to more than a few unsavoury stereotypes.

Features of it can be described as a never-ending turnover of throw-away internet slang, a cult following for low-taste memes, a dedication to the curated lives of social media influencers and Youtube celebrities, and the ritual of eating innumerable slices of avocado toast. Dating apps have also become a staple of impatient, hectic and autonomous generation Z life.

The majority of us are used to hearing stories from our friends about their romantic escapades and humorous first dates, and anticipate regular updates about the happenings on their Tinder profiles. This is now normalised and regarded to be a healthy and lighthearted topic of conversation within a friendship group. Alternatively, however heartwarming it may be to hear of our close friends romantic successes, research suggests that the world of online dating should be entered at caution and taken with a pinch of salt.

 

There are now believed to be over 3 billion internet users worldwide, according to a World Internet User Statistics report, with more than 80% of these users accessing the internet via a smartphone. The popular dating app, Bumble, has close to 40 million users worldwide and claims that it has led to 15,000 marriages. Some reports note that the average online dating site user spends 90 minutes per day on a dating app.

In Psychology of Adjustment: The Search for Meaningful Balance, 38% of singles in a nationwide American survey admitted that they had used online dating, with 1/3 of respondents arguing that their schedule made it difficult to meet someone through traditional methods and 1/4 of users stating that they were online dating in search for a fling, as opposed to a serious relationship. 66% of users actually went on a date with someone that they had met online, and 54% of singles said that they fell for potential partners due to their conversation rather than their physical appearance. Although an alarming amount of us use dating sites, and the importance of physical attractiveness and appearance only marginally trumps personality and conversation, it is comforting to hear from experts that no amount of tech usage can change basic aspects of face-to-face flirtation.

 

Online dating clearly seems to be a corporate success, and a social phenomenon, but is it safe? Are there core similarities between the psychology of attraction in online and traditional dating? Or does technology affect what qualities are perceived as important in a partner? Is online dating less like a ‘natural’ and ‘authentic’ interaction? And does the nature of these online interactions affect our behaviour and how we behave with one another?

Psychotherapist, Denise Dunne argues that “there are some difficulties in mental health that arise around the use of dating apps”. She continues that, “they create an atmosphere that psychotherapists would have previously regarded as pathological, and narcissistic”. Concluding that, “the way these apps are designed are around appearances, non-emotional online communication, and they are about ubiquity and endless promise”. Consequently, perhaps dating apps can inflate an individuals ego and thirst for compliments, whilst emphasising appearance over personality, subsequently, fuelling into our sense of vanity and unrealistic desires. Becoming too caught up in our physical appearance can potentially lead to insecurities, anxiety and other mental health issues that have become increasingly common amongst today’s youth. Trent Petrie, professor of psychology at the University of North Texas seconds this, stating that, “with a focus on appearance and social comparisons, individuals can become overly sensitised to how they look and appear to others and ultimately begin to believe that they fall short of what is expected of them in terms of appearance and attractiveness”. Jessica Strübel PhD, also of the University of North Texas, conducted a study alongside Petrie, in which, 1,044 women and 273 men, predominantly undergraduate students, were asked to complete questionnaires about their usage of Tinder, their body image, socio-cultural factors, perceived objectification, and psychological well-being. Roughly, 10% of the pool reported that they used Tinder, and interestingly, both male and female users reported feeling less satisfaction with their bodies and appearance than non-users. However, only male users reported lower levels of self-esteem.“We found that being actively involved with Tinder, regardless of the user’s gender, was associated with body dissatisfaction, body shame, body monitoring, internalisation of societal expectations of beauty, comparing oneself physically to others, and reliance on media for information on appearance and attractiveness”, Strübel stated. Overall, Tinder users reported having lower levels of satisfaction with their faces and bodies and having lower levels of self-worth than the men and women who did not use Tinder. Furthermore, this could potentially relate to the fear of frequent and regular rejection that many experience when using dating apps, according to research presented at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association.

 

A poll of 200,000 iPhone users by non-profit organisation Time Well Spent discovered that the dating app Grindr, made people feel the most unhappy, with a staggering 77% of users stating that usage made them feel more miserable than all the other dating apps on the market. Tinder finished in 9th place on the unhappiness ranking. In fact, users of dating apps are expected to feel higher levels of distress, sadness, and depression, and feel greater pressure to be ‘attractive’ and thin. In support of this, Anita Chlipala, a licensed therapist and dating expert, confessed that she sees, “more anxiety and sometimes depression” develop in clients that use dating apps, stating that they experience lower levels of self-esteem, and question their self-worth, and develop insecurities, often building a mental wall around themselves to protect their emotions which have become more fragile with each time that they have been hurt. Studies have found that around 50% of matches on Tinder do not message back, which would explain this feeling of rejection that many users have after being constantly ignored or effectively, ‘disliked’, leading to a feeling of demoralisation, and a lack of confidence in trying again.

 

This casual and disposable way in which we utilise dating apps can also contribute to negative feelings. It often seems as if we are not valuing one another as human beings, with desires and hopes and emotional needs, but as statistics to tally up our match total. Of course, as earlier statistics have suggested that many people use dating apps for a laugh or to have some fun, but for many people, especially those with full-time work it can seem like the only way that they can secure the partner and relationship that they desire. Therefore, it’s only understandable that someone tossing away their efforts in earnest will hurt a user. The whole concept of swiping, can encourage users to feel like a ‘better’ option is going to reveal itself upon the next swipe, leading to dismissal and unrealistic expectations. The new act of ‘ghosting’, where an individual suddenly drops all contact with their online match without explanation and disappears, can be described as a dehumanising and damaging experience that can particularly affect vulnerable people with existing mental health problems.

 

Sites such as match.com or eHarmony, often feature comprehensive questionnaires and detailed biographies, which demand more investment and interest from the user. The more fruitful array of information on both sides makes the process seem far more authentic and human than the likes of Tinder, Grindr, and Bumble, where people are often rated over how cool they look in a selfie or how accomplished they can make themselves seem through their character limited bio. Much like Instagram, dating apps can appear shallow and lacking in genuine substance or purpose.

 

Dr Jennifer B. Rhodes, a licensed psychologist believes that this culture of looking for the next best thing can create problems when we eventually do settle down into the relationships that we searched for online, as we apply this same attitude of dissatisfaction to our partner. This can manifest in problematic ways, with Tinder Expert, Dr. Timmermans Ph.D. and her colleagues discovering through research that a significant number of people who are in committed relationships continue to use dating apps, for casual sex, or simply for an ego boost. Many users of dating apps also report that first dates or meetings of their online suitor are often awkward, crude or unrewarding.

 

The overwhelming sense of choice that we are greeted with when venturing into the realm of online dating can be problematic and lead to self-questioning. In The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, Barry Schwartz explores the phenomenon of cognitive overload, which is a situation in which our brain is overwhelmed with choice or information, and this can lead to stress, difficulty processing or indecision. This can be applied to online dating, because much like Schwartz’s admission that when experiencing a cognitive overload, he forgot what regular was, when using dating apps excessively we can forget what we are looking for or lose grasp of realistic expectations, leading to a void of endless swiping.

 

Endless swiping and scrolling in itself is wholly addictive as I’m sure everyone is already aware. This is due to its activation of the addiction centre of the brain, as we scout for ‘better’ options. This is strikingly similar to the application of dopamine in the success of social media apps. The neurochemical, dopamine gives us a yearning to seek rewards, and the instant gratification that we receive from social media, through likes, comments, views, shares, reactions, and messages can make us addicted to this immediate attainability of happiness.

 

The HBO documentary, Swiped: Hooking Up in the Digital Age, in particular does little to depict dating apps in the positive light that marketing agencies do. In the documentary, social psychologist at New York University, Adam Alter, aligned the dating app experience to playing on a slot machine, alluding to matching through the allegory of feeling joyous after a win on a machine, with lights flashing and bells ringing to accompany the mood. In fact, Tinder co-founder, Jonathan Badeen, has stated that the number one reason that people use Tinder is for entertainment, as opposed to looking for a relationship.

 

Dr. Timmermans started the Big Tinder Project in 2015, where she developed the Tinder Motives Scale, and through four independent studies found that there were 8 primary Tinder motives. Love was actually the fourth most common motive, which followed, amusement, curiosity, and the desire to socialise. It seems like the main principle of dating in the modern age, which is predominantly online, is to treat it as a game, which must be fun, and suits our impatient lifestyles. This has moved away from purpose dating where the principle motive for many people was to get into a stable relationship and eventually marry. This captures the many attitudes and debates that concern modern life, and highlight the changes that our society has experienced in recent years.

 

Generally speaking, the prospect of meeting a stranger that you’ve been chatting to online, although now normalised, will still be sure to raise a few eyebrows, due to the vast array of safety concerns that come with online dating. The recent tragic death of Grace Millane saw Britain and New Zealand mourn the University of Lincoln graduate who was murdered by a man that she is widely reported to have encountered on a dating app. It comes as no surprise that dating apps can lead to violent or dangerous encounters, problematic situations or the sharing of indecent and graphic images which, the latter as of this week has been banned by Instagram, following the death of 14 year old Molly Russell from the glamorisation of self-harm on the photo-sharing app. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, 28% of online dating site users have been made to feel harassed or uncomfortable by someone on a dating site or app. In light of the current mood, Bumble’s, Vice President of International Marketing and Communications, launched a global campaign about mental health last October.

 

Armed with research that paints a pretty bleak picture of online dating, I asked two of my closest friends about their experiences on Tinder. Neither of them found that it brought them the perfect partner or even just some fun, stating that the app was shallow, with too much emphasis on appearance. They also expressed concern that it is difficult to trust someone’s intentions online, finding it hard to differentiate between whether someone is looking for a genuine connection or just sex. The dry pick up lines that most users adopt certainly didn’t leave them too impressed. Interestingly, one of my friends pointed out that Tinder forces you to subconsciously judge on appearance and style because you have to click on a users image to read their bio, therefore, at first glance you are only able to see their image. Their opinions highlight the disingenuous and vapid mood that surrounds aspects of social media usage.

Words by Melissa Fleur Afshar

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