Are Dating Apps Taking a Toll on Your Mental Health?

It’s not just ghosting that can hurt your self-esteem.

In a world where one can get everything from groceries to sex toys delivered the same day, it’s clear that people today embrace convenience. This also extends to dating. Dating apps have boomed in popularity and offer a convenient and often quick way to “meet” potential partners in your city. You can match with someone online at 10 a.m., and by 9 p.m., be sitting down with them for drinks. With around 40 million people using some type of dating app or platform, something has to be working.

Like many phone apps, dating apps offer a form of instant gratification. You can show your interest in someone’s profile (or just their picture) with a single swipe. If they like you back, the app will tell you (how’s that for an ego boost?). Many people describe the swiping as “addictive.” While others may pass the time playing Candy Crush on their phones, they are swiping on dating profiles.

While it may seem like a fun way to pass the time, that constant “swiping” on dating apps may take a toll on your mental health.

Down the Rabbit Hole

It’s easy to get a thrill when someone you are interested in returns the sentiment. Dating apps often offer a big message that reads MATCH when you and another user both swipe “yes” on each other. It provides the same thrill as watching a row of blocks disappear on Tetris. But what happens if you get stuck in a swiping marathon, and 50 profiles later, you haven’t gotten a single match?

“A person’s self-perception can start to depend on responses on the app. More responses can boost self-esteem, while less attention can negatively impact it,” says GinaMarie Guarino, LMHC, founder of PsychPoint, a resource center for mental health professionals.

It’s no surprise that repeated negative experiences on dating apps can lead to feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, and depression. Your mind may constantly be questioning, “Am I good enough?” In fact, research by the American Psychological Association found that men using Tinder (one popular dating platform) had lower levels of self-esteem and body image than men who didn’t use Tinder.

“[You may wonder] if your crush will write to you again, if that cute person you winked at is going to respond. And instead of all this happening in a moment, it takes place over weeks or days and months of time,” says Christi Garner, LMFT, therapist and trauma educator. This leads to a drawn-out period of constantly checking your phone and experiencing a rollercoaster of excitement and dread.

To make it worse, parts of dating apps can be explicitly toxic. There is no shortage of people asking inappropriate questions or propositions, and they may use derogatory, insulting language if you turn them down. These cruel interactions can be frustrating and demeaning, and may make you worry if there’s something wrong with you.

Navigating the Ambiguities

One of the challenges of dating apps is that it takes a very personal experience—meeting someone and getting to know them—and filters it through technology. Dating apps at their core are built to be impersonal.

“Without direct contact, people can be more cold or inconsiderate of the feelings of others, and ‘ghosting’ is more likely to happen than with traditional dating,” says Guarino.

Ghosting (the act of suddenly ending all communication from someone without explanation) is a lot easier to do when you know you probably won’t have to see that person again. You probably wouldn’t ghost a date that you met through a friend or at the gym because you know the chances of running into them again are high. There’s no getting around it: Being the recipient of ghosting can be painful, especially if you had your hopes up.

While some have the dating app game down, others are more at risk for heartbreak. Some people are more likely to immediately start creating a fantasy and projecting their expectations unto new matches. This can be dangerous when interacting with other users who might just think you’re cute and not be looking for anything serious.

Be Clear About What You Want

It’s easy to compromise what you want in order to come off cool and casual. After all, romantic comedies often teach that if you admit you want a serious relationship from the get-go, you’re being “too intense” and will scare them away.

Instead, you might say what you think they want to hear. Before you know it, you’re in too deep with someone who’s not a good fit. Feelings start to bloom while the other person thinks this is just a fling. You may be disappointed that they want to keep things casual, or that they’re hesitant to commit to you.

On the other hand, “wanting to have fun, explore, and have new experiences is just as valid for a dating goal as other more long-term ideas and needs, says Garner. The point is to be clear about those goals from the beginning so that you’re both on the same page. This may help avoid future disappointment.

Using Dating Apps While Preserving Mental Health

Despite the shortcomings, there’s no denying that dating apps have benefits. These days, you probably know at least one couple who met through a dating app. It can make it easy to meet someone outside your own social circle. How do you use it without losing your sanity or confidence?

The key is setting some boundaries about how you use the apps and interact with others. Try these tips:

  1. Practice good stress management in your daily life.
  2. Block and potentially report users who speak to you with degrading or abusive language.
  3. Check out the platform settings about who can message you. You might be able to filter out certain types of messages, or messages from people you have a poor match score with (according to an algorithm).
  4. Set a designated time to use that app so that you don’t spend all day swiping or checking your messages.
  5. Stick to platforms that offer longer, more detailed profiles, as opposed to profiles with just a name and picture.
  6. Be honest about who you are and what you’re looking for. There’s no point in hiding parts of yourself that you think are “weird.” Go ahead and share that you still love watching SpongeBob. Someone might think that’s pretty cool and want to watch it with you. (Sounds like a good match!) In other words, being “you” will help you attract the right person.

Finally, it may help to accept that dating apps aren’t for everyone. If you can’t find a way to use dating apps without it affecting your mental health, it might be time to put down the phone and actually engage (safely) with people who know and appreciate you.