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Humans and technology

You’re not imagining it: always checking dating apps makes you feel worse

August 1, 2019
image of man sitting alone at bench looking at phone
image of man sitting alone at bench looking at phoneMatthew Henry via Unsplash

A study just out in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that people who compulsively checked dating apps ended up feeling more lonely than before.

How did it work? A total of 269 undergraduate students at Ohio State University who used at least one dating app were asked questions about their loneliness and social anxiety. Researchers measured compulsive use by asking students to rank where they fell on statements such as “I am unable to reduce the amount of time I spend on dating apps.” People who reported missing class, deadlines, and work for one more swipe and one more match ended up feeling even more lonely and socially anxious afterward. That lines up with research from earlier this month, which found a link between teen depression and social-media use.

It’s a deceptive spiral: Compulsive users report being more confident on dating apps than they are offline, so they’re chasing that validation when they’re obsessively swiping. Katy Coduto, a graduate student at Ohio State who led the study, pointed out that social anxiety stems from societal rejection. So  swiping and not getting matched is what really hurts.

Is swiping really the best way to find a romantic partner? Some companies are trying to change that paradigm with artificial intelligence, while human matchmakers are seeing a revival. “I do think apps overall will have a hard time getting away from the swipe interface, as that seems to be a large part of the appeal,” Coduto said. “But taking that away and encouraging deeper looks into individual profiles seems like one good way to make them a little less addictive.”

Maybe swiping should be legally constrained. Already happening. Last week, my colleague Angela Chen reported that Republican senator Josh Hawley of Missouri introduced a bill to combat social-media addiction, limiting and informing users of their time. Coduto said some apps already limit the number of swipes per person per day, but enforcing a law like that could help.

So if I’m socially anxious, should I not use a dating app? Dating apps are here to stay and can connect people who otherwise wouldn’t meet. Coduto said to be wary of time spent on swipe-heavy apps, though, and to keep expectations realistic. The apps are, after all, run by businesses. “At the end of the day, these apps are coming out of our major tech centers, and they exist to get money for someone somewhere,” Coduto said.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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