In recent years, online and specifically app-based dating has become the norm. The options are seemingly endless, with apps like Tinder, Hinge, Bumble, and dozens more available, including many demographic-specific sites. While online dating has its benefits, it is increasingly becoming a stressor that clients bring into the therapy room. Dating apps can have a detrimental effect on one’s mental health, but there are some safeguards that can be implemented for a better experience.
Online Dating Challenges
Let’s discuss some of the challenges we are up against. First, people aren’t always clear about their intentions on dating apps; some people may be looking for a one-night stand, while others are looking for a spouse, and everything in between. Everyone is going into the experience with their own expectations and it can be tough to navigate when those misalign.
Another challenge is the gamification of the dating process. Many dating apps have a “swipe” format that truly makes it feel like a game. Similar to when you play a slot machine, your brain is getting little hits of the neurotransmitter dopamine when you match with a new person. It’s exciting and reinforces the same behavior, and sometimes keeps you swiping on the app for far longer than you intended. For many, swiping on dating apps has also become a mindless habit, the same as scrolling through Instagram or TikTok, which makes it tough for those on the apps trying to make real connections.
These apps put hundreds, if not thousands, of profiles at your fingertips. While the idea of endless options may feel exciting, our brains actually don’t like having that much choice. We get mentally overwhelmed with an excess of options, often to the point where none of the options look good anymore and we freeze; this is known as choice paralysis. This issue is somewhat specific to the online dating scene, as past generations were limited to the potential partners they met at work or within their social circles or whatever neighborhood bar they happened upon that night. So while initially appealing, the idea of endless potential partners may actually be to our detriment.
One of the biggest challenges of online dating is how it almost exclusively relies on appearance and split-second first impressions. This along with the gamification makes it feel like a low-stakes endeavor, leading to hurtful actions like ghosting or blocking. Ghosting refers to abruptly ending communication with no explanation or formal closing. This behavior is unfortunately quite common on dating apps and can cause a lot of confusion and hurt for the person who gets ghosted. Catfishing is another harmful practice in online dating, where someone inaccurately portrays themself by creating a fake profile, using fake pictures or names. If you’ve ever seen MTV’s Catfish, you know this can be pretty elaborate and harmful.
Mental Health Impacts
Being on dating apps unfortunately means facing a lot of rejection, whether in the swiping phase or getting ghosted after chatting back and forth with someone, or just not getting as many matches as you would like. This can harm one’s self esteem, specifically around body image since online dating is so appearance-focused. This practice can also lead to feelings of loneliness or hopelessness, especially when a string of first dates don’t result in a second. It can be a very frustrating and demoralizing experience. Though more research is needed, dating apps can contribute to symptoms of anxiety and depression, especially when they are impacting your self-image for the worse. Now I know that some of these realities feel grim but before you immediately delete every dating app off your phone, there are steps you can take to engage in online dating in a way that better supports your mental wellness.
Tips for Using Dating Apps More Mindfully
- Set boundaries: This may include setting time limits for the apps, creating a designated time and space for swiping (such as on your train ride home from work), or adjusting dating app notifications so your phone isn’t buzzing and tempting you at any given moment.
- Talk with friends about your experience on the dating apps: As we’ve established, these apps can be isolating and frustrating, so connecting with others who can empathize or may have similar experiences can help you feel less alone.
- Assess your own app habits since these behaviors can go both ways: Do you have a tendency to ghost people? Do you usually swipe based on their first photo alone? Be real with yourself about how you may be contributing to the toxic dating app landscape, and consider shifting behavior to match how you would want to be treated by others.
- Create some mental distance: If someone decides to ghost you, that says much more about them than it does about you. It can be challenging not to internalize that rejection, but mental separation can keep your online dating life from bulldozing your self-esteem.
- Don’t forget to invest in your “real life” relationships (platonic and/or romantic): Surround yourself with people who make you feel confident and happy, those who actually know you—not just the five photos you decided to upload to your profile.
- Engage in self-compassion work: This can be done with a therapist and/or on your own, as there are many books and resources available.