At this point, there’s little dispute that dating apps work. Research has found that the quality of relationships that start online is not fundamentally different from those that start in person, and 59% of respondents to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey said dating apps and websites are “a good way to meet people.”
Good as it may be for your love life, though, swiping isn’t always all fun and games. Here’s how dating apps may be affecting your mental health — and how to use them in a smarter way.
Dating apps may hurt self-esteem
In a 2016 study, Tinder users were found to have lower self-esteem and more body image issues than non-users. The study didn’t prove that Tinder actually causes these effects, but co-author Trent Petrie, a professor of psychology at the University of North Texas, says these issues are a risk for users of any social media network that prompts “evaluative” behaviors. (A representative from Tinder did not respond to TIME’s request for comment.)
“When we as human beings are represented simply by what we look like, we start to look at ourselves in a very similar way: as an object to be evaluated,” Petrie says.
To counter that effect, Petrie says it’s important to keep perspective. “Go into this framing it like, ‘They’re going to evaluate me this way. That doesn’t define who I am,'” Petrie suggests. “Surround yourself with people who know you, support you and value you for all your various qualities.” Petrie says it may also help to build a profile that showcases a variety of your interests and pastimes, rather than one focused solely on physical appearance.
Keely Kolmes, a California psychologist who specializes in sex and relationship issues, also suggests book-ending your app use with healthy activities, such as exercise or social interaction, to avoid getting dragged down. “Do things that would in general support your mental health and self-worth, so that it doesn’t get caught in the cycle of what’s happening on your phone,” Kolmes says.
And when all else fails, Petrie says, just log off. “It can be almost a full-time job, between screening people and responding to requests and having first meetings,” he says. “Limit the amount of time that you spend doing that.”
Endless swiping may overwhelm you
Having limitless options isn’t always a good thing. The famous “jam experiment” found that grocery shoppers were more likely to make a purchase when presented with six jam options, rather than 24 or 30. The same concept may be true of dating apps, says Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist and chief scientific advisor for dating site Match. (Match Group owns Tinder.)
“You meet so many people that you can’t decide and make no decision at all,” Fisher says. To keep yourself in check, Fisher suggests limiting your pool of potential dates to somewhere between five and nine people, rather than swiping endlessly. “After that, the brain starts to go into cognitive overload, and you don’t choose anybody,” she says.
Kolmes says people may also falsely equate swiping with personal connection. “It almost gives people a sense of having done something they haven’t actually done,” Kolmes says. “It feels like they’ve reached out to a lot of people, but they haven’t made the effort to actually go out and meet somebody, which is really important.”
To keep from getting stuck in this cycle, Kolmes recommends self-imposing rules that encourage you to take your matches into the real world. “Have a system. How much are you willing to engage with somebody before you actually meet and make it real?” Kolmes says. “If somebody is not meeting you in the way that works for you, it’s far better to just let them go.”
Dating apps may set you up for rejection
Rejection is always part of dating, whether you meet someone virtually or in real life. But apps have changed the game in a few fundamental ways.
For one thing, the volume of potential rejection is far greater than it used to be. While you’d likely only approach one person at a bar, you could send scores of app messages that go unanswered — and each one of those can feel like a rejection. Research has also shown that people act differently online than in person, which likely contributes to potentially hurtful behaviors like ghosting (deciding abruptly to not reply to a match or date) and bread-crumbing (communicating just enough to keep someone on the romantic back-burner). A new study also found that online daters tend to pursue people 25% “more desirable” than themselves, which Fisher says may hurt your chances of getting a meaningful response.
Getting over these mini-rejections, the experts say, isn’t all that different from bouncing back from an in-person slight. Fisher recommends positive affirmations (she suggests starting with the line, “I love being myself”) and thinking about the future, rather than the past. “Planning gives you a sense of control and optimism and something to do,” she says.
Petrie, meanwhile, says dealing with micro-rejections is, again, about perspective. “There are many, many, many reasons why someone doesn’t respond,” he says. “If we are attaching it to the idea that there’s something wrong with us, then that may be a good time to check in with our friends and ground ourselves in the reality that we’re a fine person.”
You may not be innocent
Behavior goes both ways. Swiping through an endless sea of faces “invites us to de-personalize people in some ways,” by “not looking at the whole person and really just going based on an image,” Kolmes says — so you may be doing some of these things to your own prospective matches without even realizing it.
To stay compassionate, put yourself in others’ shoes, and avoid going on apps unless you’re actually trying to date, Kolmes recommends. “Think about the kind of attention you would want someone to pay to you, and whether you’re ready to pay that kind of attention to people who have put themselves out there looking for a date or love,” she says.
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