According to Pew, 30% of American adults have reported using a dating app or website as of 2020. So what kind of people use dating apps?
Some friends have told me they believe there isn’t much difference between people who use dating apps and those who don’t. One recurring reason I’ve heard is that dating apps are pervasive, and so their users are representative of the general population.
A new paper explores the differences between users and non-users of dating apps. The researchers begin by describing the clever marketing origins of Tinder:
Tinder was initially designed for and marketed to Greek life members at known “party” schools in California. Attractive women would approach local sororities and urge them to create profiles. Once the application had female users, the Tinder team would use this as a selling point to get fraternity members to join. Employing this strategy at multiple schools, Tinder quickly became the place to go to find attractive college students, with 90% of original users between the ages of 18–24.
To investigate differences between dating app users and non-users, the researchers recruited 1,310 participants. These participants were students at a large public university, ages 18 to 29. About one-third of participants reported using dating apps, while two-thirds reported being non-users. This roughly matches the previously mentioned finding from Pew.
Typically, it’s good to be attentive when a study looks only at college students. But in this case, it’s helpful because the participants are similar in many ways: they are roughly the same age, education level, and social class. So within this group, what are some differences between dating app users and non-users?
The researchers wanted to see whether the users differed on 6 key variables:
- Use of illegal drugs
- Negative drinking behaviors (e.g., frequency of drinking, number of drinks consumed, frequency of blacking out)
- Sexual behaviors (e.g., number of sex partners in the last 6 months, frequency of sex after binge drinking)
- Sexual deception (e.g., “Have you ever told someone ‘I love you’ but really didn’t just to have sex with them?”)
- Sexual compulsivity (e.g., “I sometimes fail to meet my commitments and responsibilities because of my sexual behaviors”)
- Self-control (measure of temper, self-centeredness, impulsivity)
- Adversarial beliefs (e.g. how much participants agreed with statements like “Sex is like a game where one person "wins" and the other "loses."
The researchers report: “Overall, online dating users were significantly different from non-users on all variables examined.” More specifically, people who used dating apps scored significantly higher than non-users on:
- Sexual deception (d = .62)
- Negative drinking behaviors (d = .56)
- Sexual behaviors (d = .35)
- Sexual compulsivity (d = .30)
- Adversarial sexual beliefs (d = .17)
Moreover, dating app users scored significantly lower than non-users on self-control. And 46% of dating app users reported ever using illegal drugs, compared with 28% of non-users. Furthermore, 37% of those who use dating apps reported that they had recently used drugs, compared with 20% who do not use apps.
Interestingly, the researchers also compared male dating app users with male non-users, and female users with female non-users. Compared with male non-users, male dating app users scored in the direction you’d expect on every measure (significantly more likely to use drugs, engage in sexual deception, etc.). The same was true for differences between female users and non-users, except that for females, there was no significant difference in adversarial beliefs or self-control.
Again, these participants were similar in age, education level, and social class. And yet there were still sizable differences between dating app users compared to non-users.
Among those who use dating apps, there are also some interesting differences based on education. For example, app users with less formal education appear to live in a different dating reality than those with a college degree. Researchers at Pew compared those with a high school diploma or less to those who have graduated from college on their experiences and beliefs about dating. Here is what they found:
- 53% of those with high school or less education said their experiences on dating apps have been negative vs. 37% of college graduates;
- 61% of those with high school or less education said it was common to receive sexually explicit messages they didn’t ask for vs. 37% of college graduates;
- 36% of the high school or less educated said being bulled or harassed on dating apps is common vs. 15% of college graduates;
- 57% of those with high school or less education said dating apps are not a safe way to meet people vs. 34% of college graduates;
- 51% of those with high school or less said relationships that begin through a dating app are just as successful as meeting in person vs. 62% of college graduates.
These results suggest that there are notable differences between people who use dating apps and people who don't, as well as educational differences among dating app users.
Rob Henderson is a doctoral candidate at the University of Cambridge, where he studies as a Gates Cambridge Scholar. He obtained a B.S. in Psychology from Yale University, and is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force.
Editor's Note: This essay appeared first in the author's personal newlsetter. It has been lightly edited with his permission.
*Photo credit: Alexander Sinn via Unsplash.