EEvery week I get emails from people who want to tell me their dating app horror stories. Sometimes it’s just one hell of a night; and sometimes it’s about a relationship that started on a dating app and ended in a hellish place — often because their significant other was still, secretly, on dating apps. Betrayal is a common theme, unsurprisingly, in an age when these apps have made the range of options for potential partners seem endless and the ability to access them virtually immediately.
I’ve been a critic of the dating app industry almost since its inception, a role I never expected to take on. When Tinder launched its mobile app ten years ago this year, I had just started doing a story for Vanity Fair about teenage girls and how social media affected their lives. I was at the Grove, a mall in Los Angeles, talking to a 16-year-old girl, when she told me about a new app, Tinder. She showed me how she was, meeting and talking with men in their 20s and 30s, and how some of them had been sending her sex messages and nude pictures.
The dating app culture that has evolved over the ensuing decade can be very challenging, as anyone who’s been there (including myself) can tell you. The most outrageous and offensive type of behavior has been normalized. We talk about everything from nude requests to sex requests; rude comments about someone’s appearance or communication style; and, of course, ghosting. Nothing I say here is new, although I was one of the first people to write about it, in Vanity Fair in 2015, in a story called Tinder and the Dawn of the Apocalypse. dating – a piece that drove Tinder so crazy it notoriously tweeted me over 30 times in one night.
And yet, despite the pushback this story has received, its revelations have now become commonplace, part of our general understanding of the disruption caused by dating apps. After making this story, I continued to investigate the ways dating apps are plagued by sexism, racism, and transphobia, as have many other journalists. And yet, the use of dating apps has only increased over the past 10 years, especially during the pandemic, which has seen an increase in the number of users and the hours they have spent on these platforms.
Some of the people who contact me say they do it because they feel like they can’t tell anyone else – including the dating app companies themselves, which are notoriously slow. to respond to complaints from their users (if they ever do), even complaints about, distressingly, sexual assault. There hasn’t been much movement toward reforming these apps, and depictions in pop culture are often sunny and romanticized.
My first impression of the dating apps in this Los Angeles mall was that they were something dangerous for kids and teens – which, clearly, they still are. Tinder doesn’t officially allow underage users to communicate with adults, but kids have since it launched and still do. Kids are on Tinder, Bumble, Grindr, Hinge and many other dating platforms – it’s easy to create a fake profile and sign up, and there’s still no effective age check, despite the calls from various sides. Even an app designed specifically for teens aged 13 to 17, Yubo – which has millions of users worldwide – has been exposed for inappropriate content and harassment.
Why do people keep using these apps, if they’ve made dating so hellish? (Even more hellish, I’d say, than it always has been.) There are several reasons for this, I think: the first is that the dating app industry has overwhelmed the dating landscape to the point where many people think there is no other way to meet someone. They did this by making their apps simple, promising love in just a few swipes. They did this by eliminating the need to show up in person.
Another reason is that dating app users harbor the same hopes as millions of gamblers who walk into casinos every day, knowing full well that the odds are stacked against them and the house always wins. And the same goes for dating apps, which, despite promising to find lasting connections for their users, offer no data to back it up – in fact, data from outside sources suggests that the Most dating app users do not find lasting relationships or marriages. through these platforms.
But people keep swiping, scrolling, swiping, sometimes for hours a day, like 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, 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 has never been a very romantic idea, but it has proven to be very lucrative for dating app companies – although perhaps at our expense.
Nancy Jo Sales is an editor at Vanity Fair and author of American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers
This article was last modified on August 16, 2022. A previous version described Yubo as a dating app; it is a social video live streaming app.