The Psychological Effects of Online Dating for Young Adults

If you’re a young adult using dating apps like Tinder or Bumble, you may be wondering about the psychological effects of online dating — positive and negative — and if they include mental health issues like depression and anxiety.  

To explore this issue, we spoke with Alisa Foreman, a licensed marriage and family therapist and executive clinical director of Optimum Performance Institute in Woodland Hills, California. The transitional living program works with young adults of all genders who are dealing with various mental health issues, including technology addiction

Having provided therapy to adolescents, couples, and families, Foreman offered useful insights on the difference between online and traditional dating as well as the work required to build a strong relationship in the digital world.

Online Dating Statistics

According to a survey of U.S. adults conducted by the Pew Research Center in late 2019, 48% of young people ages 18 to 29 have used a dating site or app. This use is particularly high for those who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, with 55% of people in this group stating they’ve looked for potential partners through this method. 

Also of note: In 2020, online dating platform usage increased, with 31% of responders to a survey published by Statista Research Department reporting that they were using online dating services or apps somewhat more than prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Online Dating vs. Traditional Dating

So, what are the differences between online dating vs. in-person dating? They start with the way you connect with other people: via technology rather than face to face. In addition, having relationships digitally allows you to date people who live far away from you. The other person could be in another state or country.   

Another difference between online dating vs. in-person dating is that it’s easier for the other person to misrepresent who they are when you’re meeting virtually. For example, they could use someone else’s photo in their profile or lie significantly about their age. 

“The main difference is the lack of face-to-face contact and connection,” Foreman said. “Without that, there’s less opportunity to practice recognizing and identifying social cues, both verbal and nonverbal, including body posture and facial expressions. Those cues help determine whether or not someone seems interested and whether or not there’s a true connection. There’s a physical barrier online that’s not present in person, so there’s likely an added level of vulnerability when initially meeting in person vs. online.” 

The Positive and Negative Psychological Effects of Online Dating 

While there are benefits to connecting with people digitally, there are also negative effects of online dating. These psychological effects can have an impact on your emotional well-being, so it’s good to keep them in mind as you consider or engage in relationships in the digital world. 

The positive psychological effects

Young woman experiences the positive psychological effects of online dating.
Young woman experiences the positive psychological effects of online dating. 

1. Can ease social anxiety

Foreman said one benefit of Internet dating is it helps manage social anxiety in some young adults who get very overwhelmed socially.  

“Online dating can often provide a more gradual progression of a relationship in that it begins online, and once a connection is formed, it gradually moves from texting or emailing to talking on the phone and then finally meeting in person,” she said. “This slower process can often help ease the anxiety of someone who’s inexperienced or hesitant to engage in the dating process.”  

2. Pairs based on psychological profiles and interest

Online dating can help you easily find someone who’s a good match for you and your personality. 

“You may meet someone at a restaurant or at work and not know if they’re available, what they’re looking for, or what they’re interested in,” Foreman said. “Some dating apps can pair you up with people with similar interests. I think it allows young people to feel more comfortable going into a setting where they know a person is looking for the same things they are. It takes some of the pressure off the process of exploring that and having those challenging conversations.” 

The negative psychological effects

1. Depression

According to Foreman, there can be a tie between depression and dating apps because you’re meeting people so often that you can bump into frequent rejection, which can affect your self-esteem and mood. That rejection includes having a relationship you thought was going well suddenly ending when you stop hearing from the other person — being “ghosted.”  

“The rejection experienced through online dating can be incredibly hurtful and detrimental to a person’s self-esteem and negatively impact their mood,” Foreman said. “Following an online rejection, a person may wonder ‘What did I do? Was it something I said? What didn’t they like about me?’ And then self-doubt and depression can sink in because ‘I thought this was going somewhere, and this person doesn’t reciprocate the feelings. There must be something wrong with me.’” 

Foreman said online dating can also create a very isolated experience, explaining, “You’re sitting behind your computer for hours at a time, searching and swiping, and I think it creates a sense of loneliness because you’re not interacting face to face and out in the world. This can impact mood as well, as you experience a lack of connection to other people and spend increased amounts of time alone.” 

2. Anxiety

Just as there can be a tie between depression and dating apps, Foreman said there can be one between online dating and anxiety. It can start with putting together a profile in an app. Foreman said young adults will wonder, “Am I presenting myself as best as I can? Are they going to like the picture I put out? Is what I wrote significant enough?” 

Once they set up their profile, Foreman said young adults can have a hard time putting their phones down because they want to see if they got a “like” or if someone “swiped” on them. The desire to be liked and feel accepted by peers, she said, particularly in a romantic way, can create a lot of anxiety for a young person and greatly impact their mood and self-esteem. 

According to Foreman, some of the anxious thoughts young people can have include “Are they going to actually show up to the date? Are they going to actually like me once they meet me in person?”  

3. Dating app addiction

With how often young adults can end up checking their phones, which can indicate they have difficulty balancing technology with other parts of their lives, you may wonder “Are dating apps addictive?” Foreman said any form of technology that pulls a person in can be addictive. With apps, young adults can get hooked on continually updating their profile or checking to see if anyone responded to them.  

“I think it’s easy to get pulled into that,” Foreman said. “We’ve had some young adults who are up all hours of the night on their apps seeking the attention and affection of others.” 

Foreman also noted, “The process, at times, can feel like you’re running on a hamster wheel. You get on the app, you meet somebody, and then it doesn’t work, and you do it again. It’s just this ongoing process that can be difficult to stop. In some ways, it mirrors addiction in terms of chasing the ‘high’ of feeling admired and loved and experiencing the ‘low’ of how it consumes your time and energy. You may recognize that it isn’t working or is negatively impacting you, and yet you struggle to step away and disengage.” 

4. Becoming more impatient

Dating apps can make young adults more impatient, according to Foreman. 

“There’s this sense of immediate gratification — ‘I want to go on this dating app and meet somebody immediately,’ and the real world doesn’t always lend itself to that happening so quickly,” she said. “So, it sets up this unreasonable expectation that relationships should happen overnight. 

“It’s not uncommon that when people meet someone through a dating app that as soon as there’s a challenge, they bolt. They want that immediate gratification, and when that’s not there, they want to be done.” 

5. Difficulties forming in-person relationships

An important drawback to dating in the digital world is that it can make it harder for you to relate to people face to face. 

“How do you go about meeting people in the real world when you’re so used to doing it behind a dating app?” Foreman said. “I think it sets up a false sense of how we can establish relationships by making them a bit more planned out, a little more formulaic than actually meeting people and feeling it all out over time.” 

6. Developing self-esteem issues

Foreman noted that another drawback to virtual dating is there’s a significant focus on physical appearance.  

“So, there’s this need to look a certain way that creates this disconnect of the true self, who you really are and how you present yourself through these apps,” she said. “That can lead to self-esteem issues, knowing ‘This is not who I am, and yet that’s what I’m putting out there because that’s what I think people want.’” 

7. Feeling rejected

As mentioned earlier, getting rejected can be a serious issue when you build your relationships in the digital world. 

“For all the times you might schedule a date and meet someone face to face and maybe experience some rejection, the amount of rejection you can experience through these online dating apps can be tenfold,” Foreman said. “You might only go on a date in person once a week, but with online dating, this experience of rejection can be more of a constant.”  

How To Build a Strong Relationship if You’re Dating Online

Building a strong relationship through online dating is a matter of knowing what you’re looking for and figuring out how to use the apps to help you get that, according to Foreman.  

“It’s important to know what you value,” she said. “What’s important to you that you want somebody else to appreciate and acknowledge? And what do you value in other people?” 

Ask yourself the right questions

“Recognize that the app is only a tool to meet a potential partner,” Foreman said. “After that, you have to develop the relationship. Ask yourself, ‘How do I connect with somebody? How do I reciprocate in a relationship? How do I make this relationship fit within my life? Do our goals line up? Do they treat me the way I want to be treated?’ 

“Be aware of red flags that pop up that make you think, ‘Oh, that didn’t feel good’ or ‘I didn’t like how they said that.’” 

Put work into building the relationship

“Relationships require patience and compromise,” Foreman said. “You’ve got to meet the other person halfway, and both parties need to put in sufficient time and energy to make it work. You want to be there for that person and know that that person is there for you as well. You want to listen to them and feel heard by them. You want to make sure there’s honest communication, trust, and the ability to resolve conflicts or disagreements that may arise. 

“Relationships need a lot of work. So, whether you meet in person or online, you still have to put in the work to sustain it. That’s the piece you can’t get away from. You also need to keep in mind that the psychological effects of online dating could be both positive and negative. But if you invest time and effort into a person who’s truly a good match for you, it’s possible to have a healthy dating experience with someone you meet online.” 

Online Dating Wrapup

If you turn to the digital world to meet and date people, you’re not alone. Many young adults use technology to connect with others. However, it’s important to remember there are both positive and negative psychological effects of online dating that can affect your mental health.  

“As humans, we crave connection and relationship with other people,” Foreman said. “It’s a necessary and important part of life. Regardless of the platform, the goal is to find the best way to connect and build relationships with others while staying true to ourselves, setting realistic expectations, and minimizing the negative effects.” 

Embark is the most trusted name in teen and young adult mental health treatment. We’re driven to find the help your family needs. If you’re looking for support, contact us today!

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Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of outpatient centers and residential programs offering premier mental health treatment for preteens, teens, and young adults. Dedicated to its big mission of reversing the trends of teen and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark offers a robust continuum of care with different levels of service and programming; has a deep legacy of over 25 years serving youths; works with families to adjust treatment in real time to improve results; treats the entire family using an evidence-supported approach; and offers the highest levels of quality care and safety standards. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including virtual services, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), therapeutic day treatment programs, also known as partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), residential treatment, and outdoor therapy, visit