Swipe Your Heart Away: Dating in the Digital Age

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Swipe left, swipe right…

Chances are if you’re part of the Millennial or Gen Z generations and have been single in recent years, you’ve given dating apps a try. Everybody’s got a hungry heart. When faced with the question “what is the meaning of life?” the most common answer is love. After all, isn’t love what makes the world go round?

It is simply human nature to long for a connection. We all desire to feel wanted and needed; to find that special someone who we can eventually settle down with, to have that white picket fence and start a family (or not). But finding a “soulmate” (or multiple) is a common occurrence in the human experience. It’s no surprise that our digitalized world has seeped into the most intimate and emotional component of human nature: relationships and dating.

The two generations of modern youth, millennials and Gen X, are perhaps the most in-tune with technology and social media. We feel a need to project our best selves and live our lives glued to our smartphones, which cater to our every need. Relationships and dating are a major part of any young person’s life, so it makes sense that we’ve turned to dating apps as a way to connect with others. Online dating is nothing new; sites like eHarmony and Match.com have been around for over a decade. However, dating apps are a slightly newer phenomenon that have begun to reshape the dating game.

Dating apps have their perks and downfalls. It seems that for every positive, there’s an equal negative factor. How are these apps affecting the way we connect, form relationships, view ourselves and other? Is it ultimately for better or for worse? Here’s a breakdown of the most popular apps and an exploration of what the rise of digital dating means in the bigger picture.

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TINDER
Perhaps the most popular app, Tinder strips down the complexities of more elaborate platforms like Match.com to a few photos, a brief bio, and the more recent additional option of going one step further and linking one’s Instagram or Spotify. Tinder allows users to put forward their best self through choosing their most flattering photos and coming up with a catchy description to sell themselves. The app has become primarily known for hookups—making it not exactly the go-to if you’re looking for a meaningful relationship. Some may argue that apps like Tinder can take away from that old-school romance we’ve been conditioned to strive for. While our parents may have wooed each other through flowers and candle-lit dinners, today’s youth doesn’t require such mechanisms.

“Tinder is more hooking up, which a lot of people don’t like anymore for some reason,” says Helena Kali, a 22-year-old fashion student in NYC.

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BUMBLE
Bumble is a slightly different alternative to Tinder with a very unique feature: the girl makes the first move. The fact that Bumble truly puts “the ball in her court” adds a whole new component to the dating app concept. Men are traditionally expected to make the first move, but Bumble defies this commonplace assumption. However, this isn’t always an effective method.

“Bumble is difficult. Not a lot of girls are willing to message first, not a lot of guys answer on bumble or lot of girls don’t reach out,” Kali says.

Additionally, Bumble makes great efforts though marketing and user engagement through city-wide advertising and events to mingle.

“I would host bumble bar tabs and people were required to have the Bumble app downloaded and swipe either right or left once in order to get a free drink,” says 23-year-old Sidney Hulburd, a former Bumble ambassador from Manhattan.

Among the handful of popular apps, Bumble is the most persistent when it comes to marketing and user engagement.

OKCupid
For those who know exactly what they want, OKCupid is the the most appealing app to choose from. A range of filters allow users to narrow down the dating pool through personal preferences, whether it be physical or personal traits. The platform also provides the option for users to answer a variety of questions regarding their personal lifestyle, beliefs, values and interests, which ultimtely provides a “match percentage” amongst fellow users.

“OkCupid is cool because it is a lot more specific and personalized. I can find someone that I know I’ll vibe with based upon their answers to the questions, as well as the more in-depth profile that it provides,” says Jess H., a 24-year-old fashion assistant.

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So how are these apps changing the dating game?

EASE & ACCESSIBILITY
We can now form connections and seek potential suitors with the mere swipe or tap. Limitless options are literally at our fingertips. Gone are the days where mingling in the “real world” and meeting people through social circles or work are the main ways in which we meet our significant others. Isn’t the fact that we can find our next hookup or potential relationship without leaving the house almost too good to pass up? After all, we use our phones for practically every other part of our lives. So why not take advantage of the tangibility that these apps have to offer?

However, some may argue that these apps make it too easy to connect with others, leading to a sense of laziness and lack of organic human connection.

“People go on these apps for more of out of boredom now and are losing their ability to talk and make a connection in person since they have it at the tip of their finger. They can match with multiple people without even leaving their beds,” says Kali.

It’s a common assertion that today’s digitally consumed generation seems to lack meaningful face-to-face interaction, and as a result, tarnish important social skills due to our heavy reliance on texting and social media. But, apps can provide ample opportunity for those who are a bit more shy in the romance department, allowing them to dip their toes in the water.

“For people that don’t have any experience really flirting or interacting with someone who they could potentially have a connection with,  dating apps can teach them how to do that,” Kali shares.

People who suffer from social anxiety or extreme shyness now have the ability to form connections and interact without the pressures of being in person.

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ENDLESS OPTIONS
Dating apps provide users with limitless options, especially in a highly populated areas such as NYC. There’s a saying that goes “there’s someone out there for everyone,” and for New Yorkers, this means being surrounded by 8 million people lurking about. In the end, there’s bound to be someone out there that tickles their fancy. You can swipe through dozens, hundreds or thousands of profiles in the span of a day—increasing your chances of finding someone who reciprocates interest. This undoubtedly leads to forming connections with people you wouldn’t meet otherwise in real life.

However, can such endless options be a bad thing? Many dating app users fall victim to the mindset that the grass is always greener on the other side. Despite matching with someone, users will continue the endless search through swiping. You might even miss out on your soulmate if you accumulate too many matches, as they get lost in the dozens of suitors on your screen.

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INSTANT GRATIFICATION AND VALIDATION
“You’ve got a new match!”

Receiving this notification provides a sense of instant gratification and validation that might take days or even weeks to obtain. Once you’ve got a match, a window of opportunity opens to spark conversation and explore potential relationships. It’s basic human nature—everyone wants to feel wanted. Having the instantaneous reciprocated interest provided by dating apps increases this by a ten-fold.

“Matching with people absolutely provides a self-esteem boost. Especially when I’m swiping and we match right away, it’s that instant gratification of “they like me back!” That really keeps me swiping,” says Emma Smith, a 19 year old student.

That little notification activates the very same pleasure centers in our brains associated with chocolate, porn, and even cocaine.

While multiple matches and messages can provide a major boost to our ego, there’s also flip-side: they can also do the very opposite. Studies have shown that dating apps can contribute to lower self-esteem, anxiety and depression. No one likes to feel rejected, and being turned down or ghosted can activate the same part of the brain associated with physical pain, according to a 2011 study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. According to the authors of the study, “Social rejection and physical pain are similar not only in that they are both distressing, they share a common representation in somatosensory brain systems as well.”

Does this mean our bodies can’t tell the difference between a broken heart and a broken bone?

In another study that surveyed 1,300 college students who used dating apps, individuals who use Tinder have greater self-esteem and body image issues.

“People who are on Tinder begin to feel depersonalized and disposable… [developing] heightened awareness (and criticism) of their looks and bodies,” wrote author Jessica Strübel. “[They] believe that there is always something better around the corner, or rather with the next swipe of their screen, even while questioning their own worth.”

WHO, WHAT AND WHERE
With dating apps, it’s much easier to find exactly what you’re looking for, whether it be physical or personal traits. Apps such as OKCupid, The League, Jackd and Coffee Meets Bagel allow users to filter their pool of potential matches based on their specific preferences—including everything from height to “attractiveness” (based upon an algorithm that examines the amount of swipes, matches and messages a user receives). OKCupid provides a wide range of filters that allow users to specify exactly what they want in a partner. In addition to an elaborate “survey” in which users answer questions regarding everything from their partying habits to political views, an exact “match percentage” gives people the opportunity to narrow down their pool of options based upon deal-breakers or must-haves. These types of questionnaires can provide a match made in heaven—or even the option of finding someone incredibly different from you (after all, don’t they say opposites attract?).

The majority of dating apps also include a proximity feature, allowing users to narrow down how near or far their options may be. In some cases, you can even set your location anywhere in the world. If you’re planning a trip to Los Angeles and want to connect with local hotties, nothing is stopping you. By setting your location and radius preferences, you can connect with individuals close by. The days of Craiglist’s “Missed Connections” are long gone. But this can also be borderline creepy, such as the app Happn that shows users people they literally cross paths with. If there’s that cute barista you’ve been crushing on, or a stranger on your block you’ve noticed but don’t have the guts to walk up to them in person, Happn can, well, make it happen. It shows users how many times they’ve “crossed paths” with someone along with the exact proximity- which can be as close at 500 feet away. While this may be exciting and potentially spark a connection, it may be too close for comfort.

The chance to narrow down your options based upon personal preferences could certainly be a major plus, meanwhile some studies have shown that that such customizable filters can have a downfall. A recent study by Cornell University found dating apps that let users filter potential matches by race promotes discrimination. While in-person meet-ups, such as match events at bars are prohibited from preventing participation based upon race, dating apps are free of these discriminatory legal boundaries. However, other studies have shown that dating apps have actually increased raced-mix partnerships and marriages. A study written by Josue Ortega, a sociologist from the University of Essex and Philipp Hergovich at the University of Vienna, found that a rise of interracial marriages have occurred since the dawn of digital dating, beginning in the 2000’s. Regardless of the allowance of racial filters, an individual who is indifferent to the race of their potential suitor has greater access to a much more diverse range of options—perhaps one of the main factors in the rise of interracial partnerships and marriages. People who are less likely to meet in person due to demographics or social circumstances, now have the ability to connect with people from all walks of life. Ortega asserts that despite the discriminatory filter options, our rapidly changing world is re-shaping the dating scene and making it more diverse than ever before.

Another aspect of dating apps worth noting is the fact that they serve the LGBTQ community in a positive way. While the community has certainly become more socially embraced in recent years (the legalization of Gay Marriage; elaborate Pride Parade celebration), it’s not always easy for those who identify as non-cisgender or straight. “Bringing people who otherwise wouldn’t have the chance to meet is important, especially when it comes to less heteronormative groups. In my experience, dating apps bridge a cultural divide amongst queer and trans people. Even if romantic relationships don’t come from those interactions, connecting with other marginalized people helps build community,” says Dakota M., a 24-year-old art student from Boston. “Non-binary and trans people are able to have open and safe dialogues with potential partners on the terms.”

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HOOKUP CULTURE
Younger generations certainly have a more liberal approach when it comes to casual sex and hookups. One night stands are no longer taboo, and with the recent rise of modern feminist movements, women are no longer ashamed to feel just as sexually empowered as men are. Is the ease and accessibility of dating apps killing romance for good?

“I don’t think so. It makes the whole thing friendlier and casual, which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s killing the romance,” says Hubbard.

But let’s be blunt: humans crave sex. Dating apps make sex accessible at our fingertips. Apps certainly make it easy-peasy to find a hookup within minutes and arrange a late-night rendezvous any day of the week. For many, the fact that it’s so effortless to find your next hookup is simply too tempting to pass up. The sex-positive movement is without a doubt a step in a liberating direction within society, especially for women. But how do men, the more notoriously sex-positive gender, view digital dating?

“I feel it’s mostly for hookups… but not always. You can say you want a relationship but it’s not really the type of thing you come out and say. People on apps are so desperate to make something work that they end up forcing relationships,” says John, a 26-year-old New Yorker. “You can at least go for the hookup; you get what you came for and you’re both happy because your expectations are lower; if something clicks then it does.” In other words, whatever may be will be: a common attitude amongst dating app enthusiasts.
When asked if apps are changing the dating game, Danny, a 29 year old artist, answered “I’m not sure. It might be helping people who don’t really know how to interact in bars or restaurants where they’d traditionally meet,” echoing the female perspective offered by Kali. “I’m all for dating apps- It’s hard to find people you get along with and actually want to talk to. But I also think it can stop people from socializing face-to-face. Chatting online makes it so much easier.”

CAN IT ACTUALLY WORK?
The burning question: are dating apps truly an effective way to form meaningful connections, or do they simply lead to a socially-inept, sex-driven and depressed generation? The answer truly depends on the individual. There have been many success stories: I know a couple or two who have met online and have sustained long-term relationships. Even if it doesn’t blossom into anything serious in the long run, dating apps can lead to flings that provide experience, self-awareness and lessons learned. “I recently had a 3 month casual relationship with a guy I met off tinder, and he was super sweet and we had a great time. The only reason we really ended it is because it stayed unlabeled. But it was a really comfortable, intimate relationship while it lasted and it was a great experience,” shares Smith.
So even if connections formed through dating apps don’t turn into anything serious, they can still provide meaningful experience. Learning what we like, what types of people we vibe with, and what we’re looking for is without a doubt valuable in the long run.
Of course, there’s a dark side to dating apps. While online dating used to be a far more scary scene (think Craiglist killer), they’re certainly far safer nowadays. But they can also “provide an outlet for creepers and pervs. There’s also a pretty open window for harassment there that a lot of men take advantage of,” Smith says. Luckily, dating apps make it easy to say buh-bye to anyone who crosses the line- and the lack of photo-sharing avoids any-ahem-unwanted visuals.

Ultimately, these apps are having a profound impact on the way today’s younger generations navigate the dating scene- for better or for worse. On the bright side, they increase the amount of potential connections and allow users to truly find what they’re looking for. They provide a sense of instant gratification and self-worth that is bound to brighten up anyone’s day. They serve as an outlet for the less romantically experienced to gain confidence and flirtation skills. But on the dark side, they can do the exact opposite- nobody likes the feeling of rejection or being “ghosted”, and the fixation on digital connections can lead to a major decrease in self-esteem and body image.

It’s truly what you make of it- so swipe away, stay safe, and enjoy the ride.