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Many on dating apps are already in relationships or aren't seeking actual dates, new study finds

Nearly two-thirds of Tinder users surveyed said they were already in relationships; some of them were married while they were using the app.
Close-up of unrecognizable woman texting message on mobile cellphone and chatting on social online.
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Hopeful swipers looking to find their next partners on dating apps have grown increasingly disillusioned in recent years, and a new study reveals the potential root of their difficulties: Many dating app users aren’t seeking romantic meetups at all.

Half of nearly 1,400 Tinder users surveyed said they weren’t interested in actually finding dates, according to research published last month. Nearly two-thirds reported they were already in relationships, and some were married while they were using the app.

The researchers asked participants ages 18 to 74, recruited through online advertisements, a variety of questions about their motivations for using Tinder the most widely downloaded dating app among 18 to 25 year olds and the numbers of matches and dates they’ve had, as well as about psychological measures, such as loneliness and self-esteem. They then studied participants’ self-reported level of satisfaction with the app, all submitted through an online questionnaire.

"Tinder has been downloaded more than 530 million times and created more than 75 billion matches. Tinder’s in-app ‘Relationship Goals’ feature lets members signal their intent," a spokesperson for Tinder, which was not involved in this study, wrote in a statement. "Globally, 40% of Tinder members say that they are looking for a long term relationship, versus 13% looking for a short term connection."

In an email statement on Monday, a spokesperson for Tinder said the company disputes the study.

"Based on Tinder’s data, the figures highlighted in this study are highly misleading and do not accurately represent our members," the spokesperson wrote. "Study participants were only given three options to describe themselves — ‘celibate’, ‘in a relationship’ or ‘widowed’ — with no option for ‘single.’ This likely resulted in a completely skewed depiction of who Tinder members are and what they seek."

The study reported that many choose to stay active on dating apps even if they aren’t looking for dates or hookups for the same reasons they use social media. The platforms have become similar sources of entertainment and social connection while providing users with the confidence boost that comes with collecting likes and matches.

Study co-author Germano Vera Cruz, a data scientist and professor of psychology at the University of Picardie Jules Verne in France, said that dynamic results in a “game of deception.” Those who genuinely want real-life connections have a lower probability of finding success, he said, because fewer users are there with the same objective.

“Some people feel deceived with the use of dating apps, because each time you have a new platform, people think they might really find someone,” Vera Cruz said. “And then people go from platform to platform, but each time they are there, they are not satisfied.”

But those who start swiping merely as a form of distraction aren’t getting what they want out of the experience, either. The researchers found that Tinder users who reported the least satisfaction from the app are the ones using it to cope with negative emotions and other issues, such as avoidant attachment styles or psychological qualities like impulsivity.

Another co-author, Dr. Elias Aboujaoude, a clinical psychiatry professor at Stanford Medicine, said the findings line up with what he has heard from patients who’ve told him they decided to discard the dating apps after years of trying them out.

“There was the sense that they were spending too much time using them as entertainment or to distract themselves from other things,” Aboujaoude said. “It can be overwhelming, and in some cases, it can lead people to this notion that the grass is always greener on the other side, like there’s always better options out there.”

A 2020 Pew Research survey reported that online dating left significantly more people in the U.S. feeling frustrated than hopeful. People have also unleashed their frustrations online, with social media showcasing no shortage of posts from users lamenting their dating app experiences.

“It’s just, like, a cesspool of people not knowing what they want and just drama and weird intentions,” a person said in a TikTok video about why she got off the apps. “It’s become almost like social media, that it’s so toxic but you’re kind of addicted to it because you do it for attention or whatever.”

A Reddit user wrote in a recent post on the r/OnlineDating subreddit: “Maybe things will be different on a different app. I don’t even know [whether] it’s worth trying or just giving up for a while. I’m so tired of this process that seems to be going nowhere & just makes me feel bad about myself.”

But the study reports a silver lining: People who use dating apps for their intended purposes are still most likely to achieve satisfaction — even if getting there requires wading through all the matches whose goals don’t align.

“We can’t deny the fact, though, that a big percentage of successful relationships now start online, as well,” Aboujaoude said. “But you do need to approach dating sites with more circumspection and more selectivity and to approach them for what they say they were designed for, which is to find romantic partners.”