Online dating is easy to start. Download Bumble, Tinder, Hinge, or Grindr, upload a few pictures and plug in some witty captions, then start swiping. You can look for love anytime: in the coffee line, during your commute, even while at work. At their best, dating apps are fun, helpful tools to meet people and develop meaningful relationships. At their worst, as researchers are finding, they cause unhealthy habits and make people feel worse.
Mindlessly swiping can become an addictive habit, interfering with creating connection in real life, performing at work, and even completing basic tasks.
“Swiping takes so little thought, which is a big part of these kinds of addictive behaviors,” Kathryn Coduto, a Ph.D. candidate at the School of Communication at Ohio State University and lead author on a new paper on compulsive swiping in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, tells Inverse. “It feels like a game, right?”
Not every Tinder user (there are 57 million worldwide, swiping about 1.6 billion times a day) or match.com enthusiast will become “addicted to the game,” but certain types of people are more likely to cultivate dependence than others. Coduto’s latest research sought to find out who they were.
Who Has Problems With Dating Apps?
Coduto says she was puzzled why her friends kept interrupting real-life conversations to filter through romantic prospects or seemed constantly preoccupied by messages on their dating apps. She hypothesized that social anxiety led her friends to keep reaching for dating apps, even at inappropriate times, but she wasn’t sure why.
In her newest study, she and her colleagues at Ohio State University studied the dating app usage and behavioral patterns of 269 undergraduate students with experience using one or more dating apps. The study focused on two behavioral traits: loneliness and social anxiety. All participants answered questions designed to measure these traits, like whether they were constantly nervous around others, or if they preferred online dating to face to face dating. To measure compulsive use, participants responded how much they agreed with statements like “I am unable to reduce the amount of time I spend on dating apps.”
The team found that dating apps use bled into non-romantic parts of users lives. “We have respondents who said they had gotten in trouble at school or work because they were taking their phones out to check their dating app,” Coduto says. People who struggled to stop swiping, the team found, shared certain characteristics.
Looking at the data, they observed that people with high levels of social anxiety preferred virtual dating over face-to-face contact. Dating apps promote a greater sense of “control, comfort and safety,” Coduto explains. Relative to meeting someone at a park or bar, which can feel unpredictable and risky for some people, online dating is relatively controlled. It lets users carefully construct their personal image and consider and edit their conversations.
But social anxiety alone couldn’t predict whether a person would use apps compulsively. What mattered, the team found, was whether a person was socially anxious and lonely: those people were more likely to grow dependent on dating apps and get in trouble for inappropriate use.
Coduto is quick to stress that when someone is lonely, it doesn’t mean they are friendless or lack social connections. “They might be someone with 2,000 Facebook friends, but if they don’t feel like they can talk to any of those friends in a meaningful way or connect with them in a way that they want, that’s really what makes them feel lonely,” she says. “It’s really about the quality of your relationships, not quantity.”
Lonely, socially anxious people can flock to dating apps to build relationships, but the process of matching, chatting, and sometimes, rejection, can be overwhelming and demoralizing.
There are also a lot people of who just swipe, swipe, swipe, which does not always have the intended outcome, Coduto says. “You’re in a spiral of saying, ‘Okay, I’m still not getting the matches I want.’ Then, you start to feel rejected. You think, ‘I can’t even present myself online much less in person,’ or I’m still not finding a quality relationship so I’m feeling even lonelier than I did before.”
How to Use Dating Apps in a Healthy Way
She encourages online daters to be purposeful in their swipes and to take the time to reflect on the kind of person they are interested in.
Coduto also encourages self-monitoring — paying attention to the way dating apps make you feel. If you feel frustrated by how much energy you’re putting it or feel constant interruptions during work or other commitments, take a break for an evening, day, or even a week.
Another trick: add screen time limits to your phone or specific types of apps. To keep online dating from interfering with other realms of your life, give yourself a maximum threshold of swipes per day, a function that comes built into some apps like Tinder and Hinge. Coduto recommends turning off dating app push notifications to minimize interruptions and designating a specific time of day to check in with matches and swipe, rather than popping into the app whenever you please. This can make the app feel manageable, rather than an infinite ocean of romantic leads.
She references dating apps like Hinge, which facilitate more nuanced interactions, like commenting on various profiles or answering generated questions, and can make users more intentional.
Ultimately, she stresses that dating apps aren’t the most drastic thing that could happen to dating. Overall, people are still meeting and having meaningful relationships, and this is just another way to meet people, she says.
“This study comes across a little scary, but I don’t think people should be deterred from using dating apps. I really just think like the big takeaway is to be mindful of your use and to really remember that there’s someone on the other side of that swipe.”