From FaceTime and instant messaging to the plethora of social media platforms on the internet, “interconnected” has perhaps become the most fitting term to describe contemporary society. And indeed, with our ability to communicate with anyone at the click of a button, we now have more opportunities to connect than ever before. All of this considered, one question remains: Why do so many Americans feel more lonely now than ever?
The answer may be rooted in the decline of genuine and authentic relationships, particularly romantic relationships. A study conducted at the University of California, Berkeley revealed that the number of Americans who do not have a “steady romantic partner” has increased by 50% since 1986.
Many experts are attributing this statistic to the rise of social media and casual dating apps, with nearly half of young adults in the U.S. reporting having used an online dating platform. Apps such as Tinder, Hinge, Bumble and OkCupid are all marketed with the promise to increase your chances of finding love. However, the numbers don’t seem to add up: Despite the high volume of individuals who use these dating sites (about 53 million in 2022), only 12% of these individuals reported eventually forming a committed relationship.
So, why is this the case? The ultimate goal of online dating apps should be to function as a conduit in creating committed relationships, right? Wrong. The realm of online dating has become a multi-billion dollar industry — an industry that profits primarily off of user addiction, especially by keeping its users single. The way that the industry accomplishes this is twofold, relying on qualities of gamification and what psychologist Barry Schwartz refers to as the “paradox of choice.”
The presence of the choice paradox in online dating is perhaps best understood through the analogy of online shopping. Studies have shown that as shoppers are exposed to more options for potential purchases, they are paradoxically less likely to be satisfied with their ultimate decision. As our brains become inundated with a variety of choices, we often experience choice paralysis: An anxiety-induced state that prevents us from making a resounding decision.
On Tinder, the user’s experience of choice overload has become a frequent occurrence. In the emergence of what some are calling “serial swipers,” many users can be seen displaying strong hesitations to commit to a singular option due to fears of missing out on a potentially better one.
The infiltration of the choice paradox into the realm of relationships is especially dangerous. Unlike the case of online shopping, users aren’t choosing between products, they’re choosing between people. The resulting world of online dating has become a breeding ground for objectification, sexual harassment and insecurity, as choices are increasingly influenced by abundance and appearances rather than genuine compatibility.
The other driving factor behind the addictive quality of these dating apps is gamification. Natasha Dow Schüll, author of “Addiction by Design,” defines gamification as when “developers loosely apply game elements to other aspects of life, to capture attention, motivate engagement and drive revenue.” Schüll explains that these dating apps are indifferent to positive user outcomes, such as committed relationships or marriage.
Rather, they are driven by the ultimate goal of increasing revenue, and ensuring that their users remain on these dating apps is one of the best ways to do so. Accordingly, these platforms are engineered to be addictive, utilizing the same game-like qualities found in gambling and slot machines to keep audiences engaged. The most tangible example of this can be found in the concept of the “infinite scroll.”
The “infinite scroll” is a feature used on most social media networks and dating apps that allows users to scroll continuously between posts and profiles, rather than clicking through various pages. Hinging upon what psychologists have termed as “unit bias,” the ability to endlessly scroll exploits the natural desire of humans to complete a defined unit of something.
When the unit becomes undefined (or in this case, infinite), the brain exhibits an addictive response, urging us to keep scrolling in hopes of reaching a nonexistent point of completion. It functions similarly to a slot machine: The point at which a user will receive their theoretical reward is undefined, so they continue to buy into the system in the hopes that they’ll hit the jackpot on their next term.
The ethical ramifications of introducing this concept into the world of romantic relationships are appalling. As users continue to endlessly swipe through apps like Tinder and Hinge, the reward that they’re seeking isn’t simply monetary: It is a real person with a real life that they are interacting with.
The instant gratification offered by each ‘match’ causes the idea of exclusivity to appear unsettling, with many individuals remaining addicted to these apps even in committed relationships. Specifically, 30% of Tinder users are married, and another 12% are in relationships. Because of this, the online dating world has become a hotbed for cheating and noncommittal sex. Users find themselves immersed in an endless, twisted game, where matches and hookups function as points to keep score.
All of these conditions have combined to create an online dating environment that is less than ideal. And unfortunately, these negative impacts have been shown to disproportionately affect women. Studies have shown that women are significantly more likely to experience online abuse and harassment on these platforms than men. Specifically, in a study of women who had used some type of dating platform in the last 15 years, over one-third of them reported that they were sexually assaulted by someone they met on one of these apps. Reports of lowered self-esteem and feelings of objectification are also not uncommon. The ability of users to create an idealized, “filtered” version of themselves online can promote unhealthy thinking: Users are increasingly being conditioned to think that this “filtered” version of themselves is the only one that is reasonable to present to the outside world.
So, do these claims that the “dating apocalypse” is upon us actually hold any validity? The answer is complicated. While the rise of social media and online dating apps have perpetuated a strong hook-up culture, a growing awareness of the toxicity of these platforms has also created an equally strong counter-movement. Mounting pressure as a result of sexual harassment and lack of corporate oversight has spread awareness about the issue, fostering further research into how to correct the faulty nature of these apps. For the foreseeable future, however, it seems as though these apps are here to stay. Accordingly, users have a choice to make: In a world that is becoming increasingly digitized, it is up to each of us to decide whether we want our love lives to fall into that category as well.
Tate Moyer is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at [email protected].