The dark side of dating apps: The game we’re all playing

Photo of phone with dating apps tab open
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As a sociology and media studies student, I’ve found myself increasingly interested in online dating platforms. I wanted to get a sociological perspective, so I decided to interview the professor teaching my virtual communities class, Edwin Lin.

Lin believes that the advent of online dating has fundamentally altered the way people approach romantic relationships by allowing users to easily change the way they present themselves and seamlessly slip out of romantic commitments. More people are using these platforms for casual hookups and conversations, and in the last decade, the audience has expanded beyond professionals to include college students and millennials. With this demographic shift, the culture has shifted from helping users find long-term commitments to facilitating casual and fleeting interactions, “gamifying” dating culture.

According to Lin, the rise of dating apps is a response to broader societal changes in how we work and interact with each other. 

Before dating apps, you had to go to a venue such as a bar, restaurant or concert to meet someone you didn’t personally know.

“Initially, the virtual dating space was created for the purpose of young professionals who were too busy and were working all hours of the day and had no time to go to these places and meet new people and make new connections.” Lin said. 

Dating apps were originally marketed toward people looking for long-term relationships, offering a kind of “matchmaking” service. Now, apps are increasingly popular among college students and young people in their 20s: According to eHarmony, the number of people between ages 18-24 who use dating apps has tripled since 2013. 

Lin said some people prefer using dating apps over meeting in person. One benefit of meeting someone through a virtual platform is that you can easily set the agenda and be clear about whether you are looking for a serious relationship, a casual hookup or something in between. 

This can be particularly advantageous for women, according to Lin, who may want to set the tone and be in control of the circumstances under which the interaction is taking place.

Amid the pandemic, when traditional venues for romantic encounters such as bars and restaurants are not accessible, being able to meet people online has significant value. Dating apps can also be useful for people who are unfamiliar but curious about the dating world and want to try meeting someone in an informal way without making a commitment. 

On the other hand, online dating can negatively affect the way people explore romantic relationships. Dating apps give you the ability to instantaneously change your identity, edit and control the space: You can change your profile picture and biography in a few seconds, and you can simply ghost someone if you no longer want to talk to them. This can be problematic. If you view all your relationships through a lens in which they can be easily filtered and edited, you may have a hard time committing to a long-term relationship that requires sustained work and communication.

“Some people have said that this is an explanation for why divorce rates are increasing — because people are less equipped to stay with a person long term,” Lin said. “There is potentially some truth to it. … People will eventually have to delineate that this will be fundamentally different from a face-to-face, long-term, committed relationship.”

This made sense to me. Dating apps aim to give a user exactly the kind of match they want: You can curate your feed based on the desired height, political affiliation, location or religion of a partner. If users are unable to recognize that dating apps are making the courtship process easier, then they may struggle with long-term relationships down the line.

“An app can facilitate meeting but can’t facilitate conflicts,” Lin said.

Lin described that despite making meeting people easier than ever, the actual work of sustaining a relationship is no less difficult than it was before.

“I don’t think any kind of technology out there will ever change the nature, complexity, difficulty and work that is required in any relationship,” Lin said.

While the gamelike nature of dating apps is concerning, it’s also one of the platform’s main allures. Every swipe or like on your profile is a reward, making users stay on the app and aimlessly swipe for hours. Many people are present on the platform to observe, with no intention of talking or connecting. Taking the first step of swiping is easy, but taking the conversation to the next level and meeting in real life requires emotional investment, which can be intimidating. 

“The space is not normal even if it feels normal. Once people get tired of the game, they learn that the game is not the same as reality,” Lin said. “People should be aware of the fact that they are playing a game.” 

Ultimately, dating apps have their benefits and drawbacks. However you use them, it is important to remember that they are built to draw users in and keep them on their platforms — we’re all just players in a virtual dating game.

Contact Amrita Bhasin at [email protected].