Dating today has many pitfalls. Yet if a stranger started chatting with someone in a pub, few people would respond directly, “No, you’re too small for me, and I don’t think I’ll like your politics – please, withdraw from my orbit. “Similarly, most men wouldn’t expose their genitals before saying a word on a first date. And very few people would suddenly walk out of a cafe in the middle of a conversation, leaving behind someone they had been dating for weeks.
As bizarre as these behaviors seem when enacted “in real life,” however, people do the digital equivalents all the time when they go out online. These situations have become commonplace on the thousands of online dating sites and apps, which is not good news for the millions of people who use them – in the United States, three out of 10 adults, a proportion which rises to 48% among 18-to-29 year olds.
As a result, future dates face many emotional risks as they slip and slide. In 2018, a team of researchers in the Netherlands and the United States found that 42% of people with profiles on the dating app Tinder were married or in a relationship, but were still looking for dates. Meanwhile, abuse in the form of trolling is rampant on apps; users also experience ghosting as matches disappear without a trace, and some people are also targeted with unsolicited graphic photos.
Of course, many people misbehave when trying to pick someone up from a pub or club, or even on a date arranged by mutual friends. But certain features of dating apps make them particularly rich in misbehavior. “The screen mediates our courage, so we will do and say things online that we would never do in real life,” says Dr Joanne Orlando, an Australia-based researcher and author who focuses on digital wellbeing. .
Other aspects of these apps, like their addictive algorithms and wealth of options, also make people braver. They seem to give users not just a license to misbehave, but also an incentive. What they offer, after all, is a numbers game – whether users want to find casual sex or romantic love, the more they widen their nets, the more likely they are to find it. This can encourage users to ruthlessly reject less promising captures and quickly switch between people, so they can use apps to their fullest effect.
All of this has troubling implications for online dating and the millions of people who rely on these sites and apps to find matches – a number that’s growing every year. Bad behavior practiced and honed on dating apps can easily spill over into the rest of our lives. And, often, it is.