Long Reads

Understanding the real problem with dating apps

There’s a gap between how millennials would like to meet a partner, compared to the way they’re actually going about it

The first time I tried online dating, I ended up standing in a bush outside a pub window, watching my date text me to ask where I was.

“Five mins, sorry!” I typed back with shaky fingers, branches poking into my shins. He glanced up suddenly and I ducked. Perhaps if I stayed in the bush long enough, I too could become an herbaceous border, safe from the pains of human existence. Like dating through a screen.

Half a decade later, I like to think I’ve become less petrified at the thought of sitting opposite someone and making small talk for a few hours. But in the interim, the dating scene seems to have undergone a crisis of confidence. What’s to blame? Apps.

A new YouGov survey – of primarily heterosexual people – commissioned by BBC Newsbeat, has revealed a serious schism in the way UK millennials want to meet a partner, compared to how they’re actually going about it. Dating apps, it emerges, are the least preferred way to meet someone to go on a date with (meeting someone at work trailed in at second place). Swiping fatigue levels were at their highest among women, too. Nearly half of those surveyed placed Tinder and co at the bottom when it came to their ideal manner of locating Prince Charming-Enough.

So people don’t like the idea of beginning their romantic journey by flicking through a catalogue of infinite options that suggests everyone is replaceable. Fair enough. What makes the results fascinating is that – despite this finding – 53% of 25- to 34-year-olds said they do use apps in the search for a partner.

Image showing two people on their phones instead of paying attention to date.

Dating apps have been ranked as the least favoured method of seeking romance by people aged 25 to 34.

And of the 47% of respondents who claimed they’d never downloaded the likes of Hinge ‘just for a look’, 35% said the only reason was because they were already firmly in a relationship, thank you very much.

Which results in a millennial paradox. We hate using dating apps to date, but we rely on using dating apps to date.

“Meeting people in the real world can be tough,” says 23-year-old serial dater, Arielle Witter, who is active on apps including Tinder, Bumble and The League. Despite this, she says she is not the “biggest fan” of dating through apps.

“My preferred method would be to meet someone first in person, but apps are very convenient,” she tells Stylist. “They break down that wall of having to talk or approach someone and face [possible] rejection.”

Fear of approaching others loomed large among survey respondents, too. A third (33%) of people said their use of dating apps stemmed from being ‘too shy’ to speak to someone in person, even if they were attracted to them. Hectic modern lifestyles also came into play; a further 38% attributed their use of the much-loathed apps to making it ‘practically easier’ to meet people than in person. 

A woman scrolls through dating apps in bed

A third of people said they used dating apps because they were ‘too shy’ to speak to someone in real life.

So what’s going on? Dating apps were supposed to herald a new age. A sea of plentiful fish, whose top songs on Spotify were identical to yours (Mount Kimbie and Nina Simone? Soulmates). The ability to sniff out misogynists earlier than one month into a relationship, by allowing them to expose themselves with the inclusion of phrases like “I’m a gentleman” in their bio. Almost-instant knowledge of whether you’d clash over politics thanks to emoji deployment.

But it hasn’t worked out that way. Expectation (a date every day of the week with a succession of engaging people) versus reality (hungover Sunday scrolling, stilted conversation and someone left hanging as the other gets too bored to write ‘lol’ back) has caused a wave of resentment amongst millennials. But simultaneously, as more people conduct their personal and professional lives through smartphones – Ofcom reports that 78% of UK adults possess a smartphone – the dependency on the hated apps to direct our love lives has become ever stronger.

The problem seems to lie in what we expect from dating apps. Casey Johnson wrote about the ‘math’ of Tinder, proving that it takes about 3,000 swipes to “maybe get one person’s ass in the chair across from you”. The article was damning in its calculations. Johnson concluded that the lack of ‘follow-through’ on matches was because most people on Tinder were looking for simple validation – once that initial match had been made, the craving was pacified and no other action taken.

Two women sit looking at each other

Expectations of dating apps vs the reality have caused a wave of resentment amongst millennials. 

But if the validation of a match is all users require from dating apps, then why are satisfaction levels not higher? Because actually, it’s not all they want; what they’re really looking for is a relationship. One third of 25- to 34-year-olds said their time spent on apps was in pursuit of a causal relationship or fling, and a further 40% said they were searching for a long-term relationship.

One in five even reported that they had actually entered into a long-term relationship with someone they met on an app. In the grand scheme of things, one in five is pretty good odds. So why is the general air of unhappiness surrounding apps so pervasive?

“The fundamental problem with dating apps is cultural lag,” concludes writer Kaitlyn Tiffany.

“We haven’t had these tools for long enough to have a clear idea of how we’re supposed to use them.”  

Tiffany nails it. The problem with dating apps is our understanding of how to navigate them. Online dating has been around since Match.com spluttered into action in 1995, but dating using specific smartphone apps has only existed in the mainstream since Grindr first hit phones, in 2009. The birth of Tinder – the first true dating app behemoth for straights – was a mere six years ago. We still grapple with how to use the Internet itself, and that celebrates its 30th birthday next year. Is it any wonder people aren’t yet au fait with how they should approach dating apps?

Here’s my proposition: apps should be viewed as an introduction – like seeing someone across a bar and thinking you like the look of them. Messaging on an app should be the equivalent to giving someone the eye. We’re going wrong by investing hours into this initial stage and mistaking it for a constructive part of the dating process.

The standard experience of app users I’ve spoken to (along with my own experience) is to enter into an opening salvo of messages, graduating to the swapping of phone numbers – if the painstakingly constructed rapport is to each other’s liking. What follows is an endurance test of up to several days of non-stop texting and/or trading of memes. Finally, the whole virtual relationship will either sputter to a halt – a weary soul stops replying – or one party plucks up the courage to ask the other for a drink. The problem is: barely any of this digital foreplay translates to real life familiarity. 

We’ve all done it, but building up a mental image of someone you’ve never met is a perpetually dangerous game. They will never be an exact match for the construction you’ve e-fitted together – you might not even fancy them. And therein lies the disappointment.

The solution to many of these issues – the ghosting, the futile texting that only puts pressure on a relationship that’s barely foetal, the lack of attraction to someone you’d already started planning to bring to your friend’s birthday based solely on WhatsApp banter – is what I call the 48 hour rule.

Despite swearing off dating apps earlier this year, I broke the resolution when it came to wanting some… intimacy as the warmer months arrived. But after previously approaching Tinder in much the same way as described above, I decided to try a different tack. Try talking to people for long enough to gauge whether you want to meet them (20 minutes is usually all I need), then ask them when they’re free. If you haven’t locked down a date to meet within 48 hours, leave it.

Barely any digital foreplay translates to real life familiarity.

So far, it’s worked. If dating apps are deliberately built like games, then it seems I’ve managed to win them. Rather than idling away hours trying to impress someone I’ve never met, I’m now getting out there and having fun with a succession of men who – even if they aren’t what I’m looking for – all provide a story of some sort to take back to the group chat.

Digital connections, without the reinforcing foundation of a meeting IRL, are fragile and frustrating. It’s scary, in this age of ultimate control over our online personas, to make yourself vulnerable by inviting someone into the messiness of your physical world. But unless we start viewing apps for what they are - an opportunity to introduce yourself, and nothing more – there’s going to be a continued belief that we’re entering an era of dating DEFCON one. And that puts no one in the mood for romance.

Images: Getty/Raw Pixel/Trung Thanh