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The psychological effects of dating apps

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To swipe left or to swipe right? That is the question.

Dating apps are typically more convenient than trying to meet someone in real life, but they’re not a miracle solution for finding love. The apps come with their fair share of problems.

Women who want to date men, for instance, often have to deal with an ocean of connection requests and online harassment.1 Men who want to date women, on the other hand, tend to face serious competition.2 If they try to increase their chances of success by requesting to connect with as many women as possible, then they’re much more likely to be ignored or ghosted.

For LGBTQIA+ people, online dating also has its downsides. Although the apps have made it simpler to share your sexual identity and date within your gender identity preferences, many gay men in particular have called the experience superficial.3 There’s a strong focus on appearance and casual hookups over personality and long-term relationships.

No matter how you slice it, dating can be hard. But these scenarios only scratch the surface of what can go wrong when you look for love on the apps.

The challenges of dating apps

Dating apps tend to amplify problems that exist in traditional dating, such as:

Initial attraction tends to be surface-level. People judge potential matches by their photos, often within seconds. If you don’t get any requests to connect, or if your requests are rejected, it can really do a number on your self-esteem.

The choices can be overwhelming. How do you decide who to connect with? How can you tell who’s worth talking to? How do you avoid wasting time chatting with too many different people?

The process is exhausting. You start with casual chitchat, then you both need to feel a connection, and then it’s a whole new ballgame when you meet in person. Some people don’t live up to your expectations face-to-face, which can be confusing and disappointing.

There’s a high rejection rate. With so many potential matches at every user’s fingertips, there are more people to consider and more to reject (or ignore). Even when you think things are going well, the other person could decide to break it off when you least expect it—or, even worse, never respond again.

How dating apps affect your mental health

When it comes to dating, both through apps and in person, our gut feelings usually rule the day. We can try to be logical and practical about it, but in the end, our desires and emotions tend to drive our thoughts and behaviors.

If all you want is to find someone you really like and have them like you back, it can be difficult to manage your self-focused thoughts and emotions. Do any of these common experiences sound familiar to you?

  • Worrying about how your profile is being judged by others

  • Feeling anxious about initiating contact with someone

  • Becoming obsessed with looking for new matches or checking messages

  • Wondering when a match might read your message and reply

  • Questioning whether someone is being truthful about who they are

  • Fantasizing about the type of person you want someone to be when you finally meet them in real life

  • Interpreting every rejection or lack of response as a sign there’s something wrong with you (or your profile)

  • Worrying about saying the wrong thing or about how your messages are being interpreted

  • Stressing about whether someone you like is talking to anyone else

  • Wondering if there’s enough chemistry to justify meeting in person

  • Struggling with social anxiety when thinking about or planning to meet in person

  • Feeling burnt out from the endless cycle of browsing, swiping, matching, messaging, and meeting up in person

In a study of swipe-based dating apps like Tinder, researchers found that people who used the apps reported higher levels of anxiety, depression, and emotional distress than people who didn’t use them.4 Another study found that people who struggled with mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression were more likely to use dating apps—but they were also less likely to initiate contact with a match.5

How to protect your mental health on the apps

There’s a lot you can’t control when you’re dating. Everyone’s emotions are at stake, and even the most level-headed people can be thrown for a loop.

You may not be able to avoid negative experiences, but you can prepare yourself to manage them in a safe and healthy way. Here’s where to start:

Be honest about why you’re into dating apps. It may be because you’re looking for deeper connections—or it could stem from loneliness, boredom, a need for external validation, or wanting to make an ex jealous.

Develop a healthy sense of self-esteem. The more comfortable and confident you feel about yourself, the stronger and healthier relationships you’ll tend to attract. You’ll also be able to handle judgment or rejection in a healthier way.

Set limits on how much time you spend swiping and messaging. Instead of trying to keep up conversations with as many matches as possible, draw the line at a specific limit: Say three or four at a time. Disable app notifications on your phone to avoid getting distracted during the day, and schedule a block of time to browse and reply to messages.

Meet up in person as soon as you feel comfortable. After chatting with someone on a dating app, we tend to be worse at figuring out whether we’re going to like them in person. Instead dragging it out, ask to meet up as soon as you think it’s a good and safe idea. That way you can avoid wasting too much of each other’s time and energy if there’s no spark.

Take breaks when things don’t work out. If you end up parting ways with a match you had high hopes for, take time to rest, reflect, and reconnect with yourself. This will help you avoid burnout and give you the opportunity to reassess your dating strategy.

Have faith in the process—and yourself

Happily-ever-afters do happen on dating apps, but they can take time and energy to find. It’s possible you have a lot to learn about yourself, relationships, and life in general before that door can open.

If you feel overwhelmed by dating apps or unsure of what you want from your next relationship, consider talking to a therapist. They’ll work with you to uncover and resolve any issues you’re dealing with. Then you can reenter the dating world from a more mentally and emotionally stable place.

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