How Digital Dating is shaping us? Part 2

Join us in our investigation of digital love

Choice Overload

Having access to a massive dating pool has psychological consequences. Dating apps give the impression that our dating choices are endless. The same accessibility that opens the door for us to make new connections also overloads us, because our brains and nervous systems haven’t evolved fast enough to cope with the deluge. This often leads to analysis paralysis. We may experience FOMO – we find someone we actually really like, but can’t let go of the notion that there’s someone even better out there. Who wants to have their cake and eat it when they could have the whole bakery? This, very disturbingly, also frequently translates into treating people like they’re disposable. By extension, we experience the anxiety and powerlessness of knowing that we’re disposable too.

Another feature of electronic dating is that you can always press delete. When quality lets us down, we tend to seek solace or redemption in quantity. Connections can be formed and dissolved in a hollow heartbeat. For many, as commitment has become less meaningful, relationships cease to feel safe or even desirable, and we now lack the emotional skills that would or could allow our relationships to be successful, creating its own vicious circle. 

Society at Large, Scorn Writ Large

When we’re considering the psychology of dating apps, it’s not just about the individual — we need to consider the social implications and how it affects wider cultural interactions as well. It’s for the reasons mentioned that many blame dating apps for the upsurge in poor dating behaviour. When the search for love is gamified, the options seemingly limitless, it’s all too easy to objectify people, ignoring their last message or stringing along multiple potential partners. OkCupid invited walls of text in its profiles, while the introduction of Tinder’s 500-character limit for bios encouraged a much more shallow experience of judging and getting to know someone. 

Of course more of us now experience dating as a volume operation. Time and resources are limited, while matches, at least in theory, are not. There’s the “classic” pre-pandemic scenario where a person is on an app date, then goes to the bathroom to keep swiping. Such casual acts of unkindness in dating are sadly very common. The relative anonymity of the apps has made the dating landscape a ruder, flakier, crueller place. Online dating led to a massive decrease in the risk of reputation damage resulting from poor behaviour in one’s real-life social circle. The game-like interface is perfectly primed for antisocial dating behaviour. If people are just characters in a game, they don’t have feelings to hurt.

Troubling Behaviour 

Most people are familiar with the chorus of complaints about dating culture today. A litany of negative dating terms have emerged, with people being ‘benched’, ‘breadcrumbed’, ‘catfished’, ‘curved’, ‘cushioned’, ‘fizzled’, ‘ghosted’, ‘seagulled’, ‘stashed’, ‘submarined’ and ‘zombied’. The normalisation of this behaviour, discussing it and giving it humorous names can help us recognise red flags, however it also seems to enable some people to justify or dismiss what would otherwise be regarded as rude, hostile, abusive or otherwise unacceptable behaviour as simply part of the experience.

The findings of some research has been that people ́s perceived success on a dating app is associated with their intention to cheat, by way of perceived amount of available partners. A significant number of people who are in committed monogamous relationships continue to use dating apps, some to look for casual sex and some simply for that ego boost. Over 70% of online daters believe it is very common for those who use apps to lie to attempt to appear more desirable. 43% of daters admit to lying online themselves, and that’s only the ones who admit it! Even one-night stands are too much commitment for some; Londoners are fond of the ‘half-night stand’ where you part ways straight after sex. 

Other studies highlight how online dating is a platform for harassment and abusive behaviour – especially for women under the age of 35. 60% of female users ages 18 to 34 say someone on a dating site or app continued to contact them after they said they were not interested, while a similar number report being sent sexually explicit messages or images they didn’t ask for.Gender inequality affects sexual enjoyment in hookups for women and a lack of concern with women’s pleasure in casual sex has been reported by both men and women. It’s exceptionally troubling that at least 20% of women report having been threatened with physical violence by men. Dating apps are a minefield for trans, nonbinary and gender nonconforming people, with many transgender people having been banned by Tinder without cause, as well as experiencing transphobia and harassment by other users, where they report feeling like animals in a zoo. 

Online dating isn’t easy for anyone. The competition is fierce and matching algorithms simply aren’t very effective. Matching algorithms don’t work well because they typically rely on information that’s easily quantifiable online, such as behavioural traits and basic beliefs, but you can’t quantify chemistry on a dating site. Plus, predicting compatibility in longer term relationships is almost impossible because success is in part determined by how a couple deals with life’s stresses, both separately and together, which can’t be gauged well until it happens in real life.

Colourwashing

Dating apps also operate in a sphere where sexual racism and fetishisation is rife. Dating apps’ visual-heavy format encourages people to choose their partners superficially, and with racial stereotypes front of mind. Filtering people out based on race is a common practice on dating apps, although more so in the US than the UK. The idea of supporting racial preferences is unacceptable and illegal in other arenas, but is built into the structure of many dating apps (interestingly not Tinder or Bumble).

OKCupid analysed sexual racism among 1 million of its male users. The research found that all users demonstrated racial stereotyping. Black women have been found to be the most likely to be excluded from searches, as well as the most likely to receive offensive messages. Research from Australia also found that 15% of gay men on the dating app Grindr included sexual racism on their profiles (Grindr has since removed their race filter). This was more likely to be the case if the profile user was white, and if the user held broader racist views. 

One piece of research found that people’s reason for swiping right is based primarily on attractiveness and the race of a potential partner, and that decisions are often made in less than a second. Users were significantly more likely to swipe on users within their same race, and profiles of users of colour were rejected more often than those of white users.

Of course people should and do have freedom in their dating choices, and there are systemic aspects to our decisions that are worth examining. It’s often said that the main factors that affect our dating preferences are physical attraction and familiarity – we are generally attracted to the image of beauty that is currently being marketed to us and, unfortunately for people of colour and women, most stars and models have been white and the women exceptionally waifish.  

At the same time, Pew Reseach found that interracial relationships and marriages have steadilyy increased over the last half century, with a further acceleration that correlates with the rise of online dating this past decade. It’s also important to note that research has found that preferring to date within one’s race is common to everyone, for obvious, familiarity-based reasons as well as more complex ones.

The Hard Health Research 

As for the clinical research on dating apps and mental health, a few studies have investigated the psychological impact to date – assessing the relationship between Tinder use, self-esteem, body image and weight management. Tinder users reported lower levels of satisfaction with their faces and higher levels of shame about their bodies. Users were also more likely to view their bodies as sexual objects, experience more comparison, and amongst men, lower self-esteem.

Strubel & Petrie argue that SBDAs create a paradigm and dichotomy of instant gratification or rejection. Furthermore, Sumter et al. found the pursuit of self-worth validation to be a key motivation for Tinder use in adults, further increasing the vulnerability of users to others’ acceptance or rejection. Combined with the emphasis placed on photos in SBDAs, this enhances the sexual objectification within these apps. The objectification theory suggests that sexual objectification leads to internalisation of cultural standards of attractiveness and self-objectification, which in turn promotes body shame and negatively impacts wellbeing. The pursuit of external peer validation seen in both social media and SBDAs, likely leads to poorer mental health in SBDA users.

A study of nearly 1800 adults found that dating app users were significantly more likely to engage in unhealthy weight control behaviours (such as laxative use, self-induced vomiting and use of anabolic steroids) compared to non-users. This is hardly surprising given that Tinder’s “evaluative factors” have the potential to reinforce pre-existing cultural beauty ideals. It’s all about appearance – the more conventionally attractive your photos are, the more likely you are to be approved of and selected. 

There don’t yet appear to have been any studies investigating the association between Swipe-Based Dating App use and mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, puzzlingly, but there’s a lot of research investigating the relationship between mental health and social media use. SBDAs are innately similar to social media, providing users a medium through which to interact and to bestow and receive peer approval; the ‘likes’ of Instagram and Facebook equivalent to right swipes on the apps.

Tell Me Why (Ain’t Nothin’ but a Heartache)

Research into the psychological impact of social media has yielded conflicting evidence. One study found a significant association of increased frequency of social media use with increased likelihood of depression. Primack et al. found the use of multiple social media platforms to be associated with depression and anxiety independent of the total time spent on social media. However, some studies found little to no association between social media use and poorer mental health outcomes, but there may be some flaws in the methodologies and interpretations. ‘Problematic’ Facebook use (defined as Facebook use with addictive components similar to compulsive gambling) has certainly been associated with increased depressive symptoms and psychological distress. 

A study of 18–29 year olds by Stapleton et al. found that while Instagram use did not directly impact user self-esteem, engaging in social comparison and validation-seeking via Instagram did negatively impact self-esteem. A meta-analysis by Yoon et al. found a significant association between total time spent on social media and frequency of use with higher levels of depression. 

The association of SBDA use with higher scores of anxiety and depression symptoms may reflect a causative process; however, we cannot clearly conclude this yet. This association may be mediated by the validation-seeking behaviour that has been found to be a motivating factor in SBDA use. Alternatively, it may be that people with higher psychological distress, anxiety and depression are more likely to use SBDAs; potentially due to the lower social pressures of these interactions compared to dating in person. 

The Future is… Offline?

Not quite clear as mud, but there are serious limitations to the data out there. There’s a lot more we need to understand, and of course there are many obvious and nuanced upsides to online dating, but it seems clear that we need to be more conscientious as individuals, businesses and societies to take better care of ourselves and each other regarding sex, relationships and safety. The environment is fraught with pitfalls that seem to have been leading us farther and farther from healthy self esteem, relational skills and wellbeing.

Increasingly, people are choosing to reduce or completely eliminate their use of dating apps. No longer are as many defaulting to the familiar excuse that there’s no other way to meet people, especially now that lockdowns are lifting and the majority of people are choosing to get vaccinated. There’s a shift towards matchmaking services again and building relationship skills offline through events, hobbies, communities and old school actual dates. Our minds and bodies are crying out for touch and emotional connection, even if we’re also feeling vulnerable and tentative. After well over a year of social restrictions, the post pandemic landscape is going to be an interesting time to see how much more invested in meaningful, real life interactions we’ll be. 

If you’re looking to find out more about transforming your dating experience, why not sign up for a free webinar for our course Surviving Tinder here. Alternatively, if you’d like to book on the course check out our Surviving Tinder page here.

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