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The dark underworld of dating apps

By Alice Hall, MA Newspaper Journalism ~

More and more people are turning to apps such as Tinder to meet future partners. Alice Hall explores a hidden world where users become hooked in a cycle of addiction and despair.

It’s three in the morning and Sam* is partying with some friends in an east London warehouse. The music is loud and the walls are sweaty. He is high. It’s a familiar Saturday night routine for the twenty-four year old style assistant from Walthamstow.

He takes out his phone and begins to move his thumb in the repetitive sideways motion that has become almost second nature to him. He isn’t texting a lost friend in the smoking area, nor is he booking an Uber to take him home. He is on Grindr, the most popular dating app used by Gay men, looking for a ‘match’ who he can end the night with.

“It becomes an obsession, and it’s ugly. Four hours have passed and I’m stood at the back of the club swiping when I’m supposed to be having a good time with my friends,” says Sam.

Sam, who came out as gay seven years ago, signed up to the dating app when he moved to London as a way to meet new people. While he describes his first year of using the app as “a sort of social sanctuary”, things soon turned dark. At his peak usage, he was racking up to three dates a day, and estimates he’s been on around 600 dates from apps over the course of four years.

“Sometimes I go home just to go on Grindr. At the end of the night I always delete it, but within a few days I download it again, just for the sake of getting a match,” he says, fighting back a solitary tear. “It’s a horrible, disgusting cycle. My self-confidence has hit rock bottom.”

Sam is not alone. In 2018, non-profit organization Time Well Spent, which focuses on the digital attention crisis, surveyed 200,000 iPhone users to find out which apps made people feel most unhappy. Grindr topped the list, with 77 per cent of users admitting they felt regret after using it. Tinder, which has an estimated 57 million users around the world, ranked in ninth place for causing feelings of “unhappiness and inadequacy.”

These figures demonstrate a worrying trend in light of how prevalent dating app usage is among young people. A sizeable 45 per cent of 16-34 year olds surveyed by YouGov have used a dating app at some point. A further 45 per cent admitted to using a dating app before they were 21.

The three most popular dating apps, Tinder, Grindr and Bumble, are built on the same premise. The user creates a profile and sets a radius distance before the app presents them with potential ‘matches’ that they can ‘swipe’ yes or no to. Denise Dunne, a Harley Street psychotherapist who specialises in men’s mental health, warns that this game-like design creates “a culture of disposability” that encourages “narcissistic and pathological behaviours” among users, such as ‘ghosting’ and detachment.

According to Dunne, receiving a match activates the “dopamine seeking-reward system”, encouraging the user to keep swiping to get the same hit. But the apps’ “endless scroll system” means that the next reward never comes. Instead, another profile is automatically loaded, making the app become addictive. Statistics released by Tinder show that the average user logs in to the app 11 times a day, and spends as long as 77 minutes pursuing this ‘hit’.

“From a social perspective users who suffer from low self-image can be particularly susceptible to the addictive qualities of dating apps,” explains Dunne. “The dopamine system can bring about a sedated, dissociated state, which is attractive for people experiencing challenging feelings. A photograph being liked is unlikely to resolve someone’s low self-image, and so the user returns to the app to obtain further temporary relief.”

Iona* was 21 when she turned to Tinder after a bad break up left her feeling isolated and rejected. Now 23, she still uses the app regularly, but has found her self-confidence deteriorating as a result.

“When you have a bad Tinder date, you go on a rampage for some sort of validation, and it’s really sad,” explains Iona. “Even if I know I’m not going to be attracted to them, I want them to be attracted to me.”

Newer entries to the market include Hinge, whose tagline reads, “Designed to be deleted.” Founded by Justin McLeod in 2012, the app attempts to shift focus away from aesthetics by allowing users to include personal anecdotes and answers to funny questions in their profiles.

However, freelance app developer Jason Kneen, who has 30 years experience in the tech industry, says this merely fronts another form of addiction. Every detail of Hinge is designed to keep the user transfixed to their phone, from the ‘ding’ of the message alert to the ‘daily recommendations’, which are suggestions of future matches based on your previous browsing trends.

“From experience working in the dating industry, the “hook” was being found and contacted by other people — there’s not much to entice you if no-one is looking at your profile,” said Kneen. “The big deal is making sure users knew that people are liking them.”

As with every addiction, there is a hidden underworld. Earlier this year, Tinder and Grindr came under fire after The Sunday Times exposed a loophole in the app’s age regulations that allowed children as young as thirteen to be groomed online. Jeremy Wright, the Culture Secretary, told the Sunday Times that the findings were “truly shocking”, and has pledged to pressure the government to introduce age verification technology to stop under-18s using dating apps.

Sam recalls a time where he turned up to a stranger’s house that smelt strongly of drugs. “The guy had scabs all over his face, nothing like the pictures he sent me. He became aggressive when I left, but then messaged me to confess he was using Meth,” says Gale. “This was the point when I realised I needed to be more careful. Someone younger than me might not have the discipline to leave and get forced into doing something they don’t want to do.”

According to consumer group Which, over half of online dating users have encountered a fake profile. Yet the UK currently has no laws in place for impersonating someone online. Both Tinder and Grindr were not available to comment on whether they are installing new measures to keep young people safe.

Madeline Mason Roantree, relationship psychologist from London matchmaking service Vida Consultancy, encourages people who feel they are developing an unhealthy relationship with dating apps to limit their usage to “10-15 minutes a day for going through profiles” or “30-40 minutes a day for chatting.”

Yet for people like Sam, the urge to swipe always comes first.

“My dream is that I’ll find someone amazing and never have to use Grindr again,” he says. “Every time you match with someone, you hope it’s the last person. But it never is.”

*Name has been changed to protect identity.

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