Dating apps have made our love lives hell. Why do we keep using them? | Nancy Jo Sales

Every week, I get emails from people who want to tell me their dating app horror stories. Sometimes, it’s about a single night of hell; and sometimes it’s about a relationship that started out on a dating app and ended up in some hellish place – often because their significant other was still, secretly, on dating apps. Betrayal is a common theme, unsurprisingly, at a time when these apps have made the array of options for potential partners seemingly endless, and the ability to access them virtually immediately.

I’ve been a critic of the dating app industry almost since its beginning, a role I never planned to take on. When Tinder launched its mobile app a decade ago this year, I had just started doing a story for Vanity Fair on teenage girls and how social media was affecting their lives. I was at the Grove, a Los Angeles mall, talking to a 16-year-old girl, when she told me about a new app, Tinder. She showed me how she was on it, matching and talking with men in their 20s and 30s, and how some of them had been sending her sexual messages and nude images.

The culture of dating apps that has evolved in the decade since then can be very rough, as anyone who has ever been on them (which includes myself) can tell you. The most outrageous and offensive sort of behavior has been normalized. We’re talking about everything from demands for nudes to demands for sex; rude comments about someone’s appearance or communication style; and, of course, ghosting. None of what I’m saying here is news, although I was one of the first people to write about it, in Vanity Fair in 2015, in a story entitled Tinder and the Dawn of the Dating Apocalypse – a piece that got Tinder so mad that it infamously tweeted at me more than 30 times in one night.

And yet, despite the pushback that that story got, its revelations have now become commonplace, part of our general understanding of the disruptions dating apps have caused. After doing that story, I went on to further investigate the ways that dating apps are rife with sexism, racism and transphobia, as did many other journalists. And yet, dating app use has only increased over the last 10 years, especially during the pandemic, which has seen a surge in the number of users and the hours they spend on these platforms.

Some of the people who contact me say they do so because they feel as if there’s no one else they can tell – including the dating app companies themselves, which are notoriously slow to respond to complaints from their users (if they ever do), even complaints involving, distressingly, sexual assault. There hasn’t been a lot of movement towards reform on these apps, and depictions in pop culture are often sunny and romanticised.

My first impression of dating apps in that LA mall was that they were something dangerous for children and teenagers – which, clearly, they still are. Tinder doesn’t officially allow underage users to communicate with adults, but kids have been doing so since it was launched, and still do. Kids are on Tinder, Bumble, Grindr, Hinge and many other dating platforms – it’s easy to make a fake profile and sign on, and there are still no effective age checks, despite calls for them from various quarters. Even a dating app specifically designed for teens aged 13 to 17, Yubo – which has millions of users all over the world – has been called out for inappropriate content and harassment.

Why do people continue to use these apps, if they’ve made dating such hell? (Even more hellish, I would argue, than it always was.) There are a few reasons for this, I think: one is that the dating app industry has overwhelmed the landscape of dating to the point where many people feel there is no other way to meet someone. They did this by making their apps seem easy, by promising love through just a few swipes. They did it by eliminating the need to put oneself out there in person.

Another reason is that dating app users have the same hopes as millions of gamblers who enter casinos every day, knowing full well that the odds are stacked against them, and that the house always wins. And so it is with dating apps, which, although they promise they’ll find their users lasting connections, offer no data to support this – in fact, data from outside sources suggests that most people on dating apps are not finding lasting relationships or marriages through these platforms.

But people keep on swiping, scrolling, swiping, sometimes for hours a day, as if they can’t stop – and many really can’t. These apps are designed to be addictive. “It’s kind of like a slot machine,” Jonathan Badeen, the co-founder of Tinder, and inventor of the swipe, told me in my HBO documentary, Swiped: Hooking Up in the Digital Age.

Turning love into a casino game was never a very romantic idea, but it has proven very lucrative for dating app companies – although perhaps at our expense.

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