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The Psychological Effects of Online Dating for Young Adults

Love them or hate them, dating apps from Bumble to eharmony to Tinder are becoming part of the new normal for young adults. If you’re one of those young adults, you may be wondering about the psychological effects of online dating — both positive and negative. You’re probably not alone, considering:

  • 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 have looked for potential partners through this method.
  • 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.

So just what are the psychological effects of online dating? To explore this issue, we spoke with Alisa Foreman, LMFT, clinical director of Optimum Performance Institute. The transitional living program works with young adults of all genders (ages 17-28) who are dealing with mental health challenges.

Having provided therapy to adolescents, couples, and families, Foreman offers useful insights on the pros and cons of online dating for young adults as well as the work required to build a strong relationship.

The Pros and Cons of Online Dating and Mental Health

How is online dating through a dating site or dating app different from meeting people offline?

The main difference is the lack of face-to-face contact, which you also see with social media interactions. That sense of, “How do I approach someone in person and really pay attention to their nonverbal cues — the body posture, facial expressions, whether they seem interested or uninterested?” Some of these things can’t be deciphered through text or email, so young people can’t practice these social interaction skills with online dating sites.

On the other hand, I think Internet dating helps manage social anxiety in some young adults who get very overwhelmed socially. The idea of starting through a dating app and making a connection and building a conversation and then moving to texting, emailing, and talking on the phone and then meeting in person is a more gradual progression that helps ease the anxiety.

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. 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 something they’re looking for. It takes some of the pressure off the process of exploring that and having those challenging conversations.

At the same time, I think online dating can be something young adults hide behind. Perhaps you’re not that forthcoming with your dating profile, and if you were to meet in person, you’d have to be more vulnerable and open with who you are.

What are some psychological effects of online dating for young adults?

We get more impatient. 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. So, it sets up this unreasonable expectation that relationships should happen overnight.

Also, how do you go about meeting people in the real world when you’re so used to doing it behind a dating app? 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.

What impact can online dating have on self-esteem and self-image?

I think young adults, in general, are struggling with this constant sense of comparing themselves to their peers. So, you go on to these dating platforms and you keep comparing yourself. Who’s got a better profile? Who’s smarter? Who’s prettier? Who’s getting more swipes or more likes?

There’s a huge focus on physical appearance. People are passing you by based on your 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. 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.”

I also think that 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. You might only go on a date in person once a week, but with online dating, this fear of rejection can be constant.

How is this going to impact your self-esteem when there are people you’re interested in who are not reciprocating? You’re constantly setting yourself up for either feeling good or feeling rejected based on someone else’s impression of you. And this impression is very much based on physical appearance —a more superficial presentation.

How to Build a Strong Relationship If You’re Dating Online

What questions should young adults ask themselves when using a dating app?

It’s a matter of knowing what you’re looking for and figuring out how to use these apps to help you get that. It’s important to know what you value. What’s important to you that you want somebody else to appreciate and acknowledge? And what do you value in other people you’re looking for?

Recognize the app is only a tool to meet a potential partner. 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.”

What work should young adults expect to put into a relationship beyond downloading a dating app and filling out a dating profile?

It takes compromise. It takes patience. You’ve got to meet the other person halfway. You also have to put the time into the relationship. You want to be there for that person. You want to listen to them, and you want to make sure they listen to you. You want to do nice things for them and have them do nice things for you. You want to make sure there’s honest communication, that there’s trust, that there’s the ability to resolve conflicts or disagreements that come up.

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.

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.

As humans, we crave connection and relationship with other people. It’s a necessary and important part of life. Finding the best way for you to connect and build relationships while staying true to yourself, setting realistic expectations, and minimizing the negative effects is the goal no matter which platform you use.

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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 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-based approach; and offers the highest levels of quality care and safety standards. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including virtual counseling, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), therapeutic day treatment programs, also known as partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), short-term residential treatment, wilderness therapy, and long-term residential treatment, visit www.embarkbh.com.