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The Game of Love

With the lockdown and the sudden feeling of isolation, people are looking for different ways to meet and socialise with others. Apps like Bumble and Tinder, now available with different features like video calls for online dates – are being used a lot more than before the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Many single people have resorted to dating apps in order to feel more in touch with the outside world, get rid of boredom and meet new people simultaneously.

Dating apps have been a famous way of “going out” for a few years now, with many individuals using the apps for an approximate 90 minutes per day. Apps like Tinder have upto 57 million users, with 1.6 million swipes per day. Have you ever wondered why people use dating apps so much when they are bored? And if you have ever used it yourself, have you wondered why it was so much fun?

According to Psychology Today, dating apps become more interesting because it almost feels like a game. The gamification of these apps makes us feel like we are a character that is to be presented in socially desirable ways, and this character is just a part of us. We get to choose aesthetic photos that represent us and answer sets of questions that bring out our best version of us. We put forward our “ideal” personality on these dating apps. We might not always act, do or look the same way as we do on our social media profile and the same applies here. Except, on dating apps – we want to be ‘right swiped’.

“Players” of these games catch the drift right away, learning to present themselves as desirable as possible — in essence, to show other players an idealized version of themselves.


So, individuals design and set up their profiles in particular ways to get more right-swipes and matches. You’ll find ways to look more attractive and get more right swipes on dating apps even if you google it! Why do people put so much effort into it? Because every match they get, the bright colours, sounds and graphics – all of it feels like an achievement in itself. It feels like a game of love and gratification. Getting a match means the person likes you back, thinks you are attractive and this leads to an almost instant rush of satisfaction. A win! And a person who keeps winning in a game is more likely to play it more than ever. Right?

Operant conditioning, a concept practiced in Behavioural Psychology, focuses on increase in certain behaviour if we keep getting rewarded for it. Which means, if positively rewarded for a certain behaviour – we will continue behaving the certain way, however, punishment will reduce the frequency of the said behaviour. We feel positively rewarded and gratified every time we win a game or get a match on a dating app- which means, we are more likely to keep playing it or swiping for more.

“Playing games on your phone releases endorphins, your body’s endogenous painkiller. This can reduce your anxiety levels, which feels great, or can even spark the feeling of being “high.”

This gamification of dating apps and the gratification from them (i.e. where the visuals are almost game like and does not feel realistic) releases two chemicals in your brain: dopamine and serotonin, the “feel good” chemicals. The “high” you get after swiping right and getting a huge colourful graphic saying “It’s a match!” will make us feel happy, satisfied and excited, like we’ve won a game. Natalie Nahia calls this a dopamine loop. Once your brain feels that way, they love it so much, they want to keep feeling that way. This is why we might keep swiping left and right till we burn out!

Dating Apps and its effects on Mental Health

So, can dating apps affect our mental health?: 

Dating apps could affect our mental health negatively. Rejection, deceit, disposability and irresponsibility could lead to deterioration of our mental health. Apart from how others judge our profiles, we might also judge ourselves too much. Getting or not getting too many matches can make or break our self-confidence and image. 

Richa Bhatia  (2020) studied the psychological impact of dating apps on young adults and stated that it affects girls more than boys. While there was a feeling of empowerment that accompanies using dating apps, the audience seem to have more self-esteem issues, anxiety, depression. They become more dependent on the virtual validation. The research also found that dating apps could become a venue for bothersome behavior for women under the age of 35. 

The research says that 60% of female users ages 18 to 34 said someone on a dating app continued to contact them after they said they were not interested, while a similar share (57%) reports of being sent sexually explicit message or image they didn’t ask for from men they were developing courtships with, without any rationalisation or forewarning. 

So, does the problem lie in the app or the users the app?

Another research in Ohio state has predicted that people who are lonely and socially anxious are more likely to use dating apps in the first place. While it might be a good idea to socialise on applications and through texts if socially anxious, this can also have negative repercussions. The study also found that individuals who do meet people online and are socially anxious, are more likely to lead to overuse, addiction and negative outcomes in their relationships. Research by Strubel and Petrie in 2017 indicated that Tinder users, regardless of gender, scored lower on satisfaction related to physical appearance. They had an increased sense of shame associated with their bodies, had lower overall self-esteem than non-Tinder users.  

Ghosting on social media

While research related to dating apps leading to mental health problems still continue, dating apps could also be hurting our social skills. Communication on these apps became very easy, however, apart from right-swiping and engaging in small talk, according to Hinge, 1 of 500 people actually exchange phone number on the apps. It’s very easy to dismiss or ignore people on apps like these even after right-swiping. Why? Since it’s a fast-paced online matchmaking app, the person’s reputation is never at risk – it comes down to being a choice. However, we might never realise how much it affects our mental health.

If you’ve heard new words like “ghosting” or “seenzoning”, many of them have stemmed from different social media apps and interactions, but are more easily done on dating apps. Ghosting and seenzoning essentially mean withdrawing from conversations without paying any heed to future interactions. Since the reputation of the person is not at risk on dating apps,  bad social skills and behavioural patterns are more easily noticed and shown on them. While one person might ghost or ignore communication for various reasons, what about the other one who was relatively more invested? 

With no sense of closure,  a person who was invested in the relationship might feel hopeless and suddenly isolated if ghosting does take place. In physical dating situations, apart from the two people in the relationship- friends and colleagues (if not family) are also included, which means that the approval of the relationship will be influenced by a lot more than some pictures and few conversations on social media. Therefore, situations like ghosting only makes it easier for people to take dating apps lightly. It’s fast paced, can leave behind minimal traces of connections, and could affect some people more harshly than we assume.

“Earlier, it used to take an entire village to build a relationship. There were common friends, families knew all your friends and associates and so did your neighbours! It was impossible to cut ties without it creating a massive ripple effect. Now, it’s just two people, on their phones. No wonder it’s easy to ghost someone.” 

Narendra Kinger, a senior clinical psychologist and marriage counsellor from Mumbai

No doubt that dating apps have made approaching, befriending and finding new potential partners easier. It can even be deemed as a safer platform, where looking for your partner can be more specific. It can give you the option to choose and can make you feel empowered. However, the addictive nature of these dating apps can lead to burnout. Using these apps too much could lead to fatigue and exhaustion.

“The whole way these apps are structured, if you think about it, it sort of seems foolish to sink too much time into any one person you get in front of you if it doesn’t seem exactly right. Because that would be a waste of time. So you end up spending a little effort on a lot of people, and I think this is where the burnout comes from. Because it adds up to feel like you’ve done a lot of work, but you’re still left with nothing.”

If you feel burnout and exhausted, give yourself a break and skip dating for a while. Appreciate what you already have, instead of focusing on what you lack and are longing for. Taking more time to hang out with friends and family before you start joining dating apps again!

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