An estimated 30% of U.S. adults have looked for love online, data shows, and millions more are using a dating site or app regularly. There's no denying the multi-billion dollar industry has changed the way single people meet and develop relationships.
Online dating has been instrumental for some in forging meaningful connections, long-term relationships or even marriage. But not everyone has a positive experience. Many others say dating apps have been detrimental to their self-image. And research suggests "swiping for love" can even feed symptoms of depression.
Swipe-based dating apps (SBDAs) like Hinge, Bumble and Tinder are similar to other online dating platforms but have the unique feature of swiping the screen to either like or dislike another user's profile. SBDA users, in particular, are more likely to experience psychological distress, anxiety or depression compared to people who do not use the apps, studies show.
Dr. Elise Herman, psychiatry chairwoman at Novant Health, explains why the search for love online can take a toll on mental health and offers advice for a better experience.
Rejection can happen at any time
Dating apps users a way to meet and interact with people they may not otherwise meet and without leaving home. The 24/7 access is convenient, Herman said, but it can also contribute to a deterioration of someone's mental health.
“Being able to date essentially anywhere, all the time, almost trains us to think we should be able to get a response at the same rate. In the past, there was typically a certain setting (bars and breweries, for example) where you’d have to work yourself up and be ready to face rejection. Now, users can get that sense of rejection at any time and it might not even be real," Herman said.
It’s human nature, she added, to jump to negative conclusions and manufacture reasons when you don’t instantly get the reaction you were hoping for.
'I’ve swiped right on all these people and none of them responded. Am I not attractive?'
When we assume the worst, "it can begin a spiral that can lead to low self-esteem or depression. And if you're filling in the blanks, there's a pretty good chance there's no truth to it," Herman said.
Instead, try thinking of someone's response on a dating app or site as being more about them than you. Maybe they're having a bad day or aren't really ready to put themselves out there.
Sometimes, a downward spiral can be prevented by putting down the phone, Herman said. Keep in mind, online dating is built around a business model to keep you on their sites for as long as possible. Don’t let that happen.
“My first advice would be to find something that connects you with the real people in your life. It’s important to find someone who grounds you and can bring you back into the moment and get out of your head," she said.
Herman also suggested setting boundaries on when and where to use dating apps. Just like there is a setting for potential rejection at a bar scene, it’s important to set parameters online. For example, instead of responding to the dating app notifications immediately or aimlessly swiping while bored, only log on during specific times of the day.
“By placing these limits on when you use it, you’re making your own rules of engagement,” Herman said. “Allow yourself to choose when you want to interact, put your best self forward and interpret things more realistically.”
When you can't do it alone, we're here to help. Don't be afraid to seek it out.
Setting clear expectations
Because each user is looking for something different when it comes to their love life, some dating apps have included the feature to filter out potential matches based on what they're expecting. Options include something casual, a relationship, marriage, friends or perhaps even “I don’t know yet.”
And when it comes to the “hookup” culture of casual sex, Herman suggests being upfront about your expectations and to ask others' expectations, too.
“If the dating apps have propelled a hookup culture, it’s probably OK to expect that a lot of people are there for that. Alternatively, there are people who are not there for that. Perhaps they work a lot and don't have much time to find someone to connect with. The most important thing is knowing what you want and both people being clear about expectations," she said.
Creating a profile that shows your authentic self
Users should also be mindful about the limitations of apps to better keep expectations in check.
“I would encourage people to be realistic. Remind yourself that you won’t match with everyone and that’s OK. Create a profile that shows your authentic self so you can match with someone who embraces you for who you really are," Herman said.
And finally, she said, don’t fall into the trap of thinking there’s always someone that could be better. “It really grinds people up. Instead of chasing people who meet your expectations for income or good looks, try to work on your own happiness," she said.
Herman also recommended reading The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor. “It’s the people who are happy, people who actively work on choosing their happiness, who actually get those things in life," she said.