At the time of writing, Tinder was the most popular online dating app in the UK, with 823,000 average monthly searches. And in 2022 it showed the highest success rate of all the popular apps at a rate of 16.51%. But if you think about this, it’s not very high, and if you’re not a Tinder user, your chances drop even further. So, what do you think this might do for one’s mental health and overall wellbeing? It’s an important and perhaps, overdue question. In this article we invite you to learn about the very real and serious perils of online dating – but also discuss the success. This article also offers guidance on how to get the best out of online dating or learn when to step away. Read and decide if you can relate, and if maybe it’s time to take an online dating detox…
The Excitement and Anticipation
But let’s start the story at the beginning. Most people start online dating perhaps with a little trepidation and nerves and then gradually that nervous energy starts to fizzle into excitement as they notice that they’re getting attention, and those matches are coming in. Then there’s the part where we can interact with these potential partners and we experience the thrill of possibly meeting new people! All this offers us dopamine on tap, a hormone associated with the reward centre of the brain. It’s involved in addiction when we become addicted to a drug or behaviour whenever we get to access said drug or behaviour, but also because of the dopamine we experience every time. Online dating can become an addiction of sorts too. We want more and so every time we reach for the phone and check our notifications, we get a little dose of D. But, it’s not necessarily a good thing. We can become over-saturated, such that we keep going back but the reward is not as potent, and we begin to experience other things…
The Mental Health Impact of Swipe-Based Dating
The Reality of Rejection
There are millions of users worldwide spending copious amounts of time looking to meet people and perhaps even be lucky enough to enter into a long-term relationship. You would think based on this, it would be more straightforward right? Sadly, wrong. I have several clients who tell me about initial attention they may receive, only to be dropped and rejected in some way. This can be from someone not liking them back, unmatching with them, or just disengaging from the conversation. This happens time and again in the world of online dating and what do you think it does for your self-esteem? I know clients and friends who start to feel that there is something wrong with them. Like they are not good enough in some way, and this also of course affects their mood. Many people also have a sensitivity around rejection, it’s natural as human beings who come from tribes where rejection could mean exile and death. So we’re biologically designed to need acceptance to survive.
The Pressure to Present a Perfect Image
When you look at most dating profiles, it’s quite clear to see that people are trying to carefully craft a curated online persona. They are effectively selling themselves and hoping to get a buyer (or three). You also have to do this when you’re attempting to hook that fish. This can create a kind of pressure and stress, you have to create and maintain a positive image, one that highlights all your wonderful attributes. Not just this, but when you go on dates, there is the added pressure of maintaining the persona. Even those who authentically do this can feel the stress and pressure of living up to the idea of themselves. It can become a performance and if you’re dating a lot, it can take its toll, no longer being fun but becoming a chore. And don’t get me started on all those catfish out there…
Ghosting and Its Psychological Effects
Most people have heard of the term ‘ghosting’. This is when someone suddenly disappears without explanation. It normally relates to the virtual realm in which people may unmatch, and even block you. Sometimes this means you are unable to view their profile, they’ve effectively cut off any accessibility to them and haven’t explained why. This has become the norm in the world of dating. My clients talk about the lack of empathy they experience, feeling dehumanised by the way they have been treated. Indeed, ghosting disempowers you, you’re unable to have a conversation to understand. This affects the ability to process and heal, especially if the person is important or it’s happened often. It leaves you with questions, self-doubt, and self-blame, and impacts self-esteem. Ghosting can also lead to trauma and cause anxiety or depression.
Comparison and Insecurity
Speaking of self-esteem, one thing that many of my clients who have low self-esteem often do is negatively compare themselves against others. This is ever true when on dating platforms. There are so many people presenting the best, polished versions of themselves, that it’s only natural to feel lacking in ways when seeing what the competition looks like because that’s what it is. When we compare ourselves in this way, whether it be based on physical attributes, or other information about people, like their jobs, we open ourselves up to feelings of inadequacy and insecurity, especially if we are already insecure in ways, or if we’re not having much success on these sites (which is frankly easy to do). Indeed, many users report (and I’m speaking of my clients and friends) that online dating affects their body image. They start to notice that they’re unhappy with the physical aspects of themselves that they felt okay with before. This is worsened when they meet some of these coldfish or receive comments from them that relate to their appearance – the audacity of some of these people!
Online Dating Fatigue
Overuse of social media is shown to detrimentally affect mental health and wellbeing. Online dating is no exception, especially when we consider the constant swiping and messaging, and the repetitive nature of interactions – there are only so many times we can feel interested in those initial ‘get to know them’ encounters. They can start to feel empty and like one is simply going through the motions of a boring, lethargic, monotonous dance! As mentioned, there are lots of other factors about online dating that impact emotionally, leading to emotional exhaustion due to the emotional and psychological ups and downs that occur during online interactions and when meeting new people with the hopes that one might have. If this resonates for you, consider taking a break and see how you feel during this time. Let this be your guide when it comes to deciding on resuming activity.
Navigating Deceptive Profiles
You’ve likely experienced some kind of misrepresentation online if you’ve traversed the sometimes murky world of online dating. People embellish, omit, and outright deceive when it comes to how they look (showing photos that are heavily filtered, were taken years ago, or when they were in better physical shape, anyone?). People also lie about their relationship status; many women seem to come across married men who proclaim singlehood, and vice versa of course (side note: did you know there are also dating websites for married people, often used by those who don’t have their spouse’s permission?). Some people are on the rebound and think or pretend they’re ready for a relationship, only to later mess people around. Then some just want one-night stands and pretend they want a relationship until they get what they want. Online dating offers more time and opportunity to deceive others without the physical cues that our intuition needs to separate the wheat from the chaff. It’s easy to see how these things can impact individuals’ wellbeing so it’s important to build resilience against deceptive practices but also learn how to recognise ‘red flags’ and trust your gut – it contains neurons and is called the ‘second brain’ for good reason.
The Role of Social Media
Social media often portrays filtered and idealised versions of reality, sometimes leading to unrealistic expectations in online dating. People can expect potential partners to match the flawless images and lifestyles they’re used to seeing on social platforms, and this leads to disappointment and failed relationships. So it’s crucial to understand how social media influences perceptions and expectations. They shape our views of others and ourselves in an unhelpful way. People carefully craft their image across social platforms, naturally leading to disappointment when expectations and hopes are not met. Online personas also create a desire for an idealised partner, setting potential partners up to fail because they cannot meet the checklist. These crafted profiles also create a ‘comparison culture’, leading to feelings of inadequacy. Social media culture also breeds expectations around response times, affecting feelings and responses when online dating. People may also try to ‘act out’ the façade they’ve created. It’s important to bear these traps in mind and nurture offline and online connections, but also attempt to be authentic in both, rather than the other way around.
How To Protect Your Mental Health
Building Healthy Boundaries
Building Healthy Boundaries is crucial for online dating if you want to protect your mental health and wellbeing. Defining and knowing your limits for things like how often you use the app, the information you share, and managing expectations are all good places to start. Establishing healthy communication boundaries can involve response times, depth of conversation, and level of emotional investment. If this is clearly communicated it can lead to better interactions. Information-sharing boundaries involve being cautious about your personal or sensitive information until you’ve built trust. This can help guard against potential risks that come with online relationships. It’s also important that your boundaries are respected, and that you in turn respect others’ boundaries, this can make online dating a more positive and comfortable dating experience.
Taking Breaks for Self-Care
If you’re reading this and can relate to some of the common experiences mentioned, consider taking a break from online dating when your emotional wellbeing needs a bit of TLC. Use this time to prioritise yourself and spend time with loved ones. Also, consider other forms of self-care that will help to lift your mood and enrich your life. Another thing that could help is to think about the impact online dating has had and the reasons for this. Are there other ways you might consider re-entering the world of dating? Might it be a shift in perception that’s required? Or maybe you’re done with online dating for the foreseeable!
Seeking Professional Support
There are many reasons that online dating affects our mental health and wellbeing. So it’s vitally important that you notice when this mode of dating is feeling overwhelming. You may not link your low mood, feelings of low self-worth, or emotional burnout to online dating because it has become an insidious part of your life. But if it is the culprit, another option is therapy. This may be the thing that helps you to identify if and why you pick the wrong types of people, why you may set unrealistic expectations, or perhaps why you accept unacceptable treatment – whatever the case might be. Being aware and working on yourself might be just the thing that’s needed to help you in your goal toward personal growth but also in regards to finding the right person for you, or realising you’re not in a hurry to.
Online dating can be fun until it’s quite quickly, and often, not. There are many reasons for this as mentioned in this article. With those many reasons also come many detrimental impacts on mental health, life satisfaction, and wellbeing. You may enter the world of online dating with optimism, and soon become mired in self-doubt and depression. So it’s important to come to something like online dating with a healthy mindset, with all the mental (and physical) health pitfalls it presents. This will likely create the right kind of approach and more chances of success. But it may also mean you can leave the world of online dating, with or without a partner, with your healthy mindset intact and ready for the next adventure!
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