“App dating is so toxic and not mentally good for me,” reads a Reddit user’s comment on a thread that talks about user safety on dating apps. On Quora, there are questions such as “Is using dating apps safe for a woman?” and “Is online dating safe or not?” Responses to these innocuous questions vary widely, from “You never know who is there,” to “Dating apps are not as harmful as you think. It’s just an app and you are solely responsible for whatever you do there.”
It turns out that this feeling of uneasiness among dating app users runs deeper than we like to believe. In the U.K. in the last four years, crimes involving dating apps have doubled in some parts of the country, according to a BBC investigation. And in the U.S., as per a recent survey:
85 percent of dating app users feel unsafe on these platforms.
The online survey conducted by MyLife.com, a reputation management platform, collected information from 1,866 people. Of those who hadn’t used a dating app, 37 percent said it’s because they don’t feel safe.
“Basically, the only people who feel — quote-unquote — safe, on dating apps are White heterosexual men,” says Katherine Albury, professor of media and communication at Swinburne University in Australia. “It is not because of anything intrinsically in the nature of dating apps themselves. There are a whole lot of other social or cultural pressures coming into play in the dating space that exist in the rest of the world.”
Dating apps have elicited fear and distrust since they were invented, as did online dating before that — and presumably newspaper personals and blind dates as well. But the stigma remains on app dating, despite the fact that as of September 2019, Tinder reported reach of 7.86 million users while Bumble was second with 5.03 million U.S. mobile users. In a bid to calm user fears, several apps and dating sites have tried to up the safety factor. OkCupid now requires users to use their real names — but a recent ProPublica investigation found that some users who reported sexual assaults to apps like Tinder not only never heard back, but soon saw their attackers back on the apps.
“The results of this survey prove that consumers don’t feel safe or trust that they are as protected as they should be when navigating these online services like dating apps,” says Jeff Tinsley, the CEO of MyLife.com, which conducted the initial survey. “There is so much at stake, and consumers need to have more knowledge about the people they are meeting up with in order to ensure their safety.” When asked if they’d be more likely to use a dating app if it provided background checks, more than three-quarters said yes. More than half also wanted a reputation score for users.
Albury says one of the biggest concerns for dating app users is not knowing much about the background of your potential date — like whether they’re secretly a sex offender or have a further criminal history. Her research found that female app users were more than three times as likely as men to want to see apps offer information about sexual consent.
Gender and sexual orientation are also big factors. A study Albury conducted in 2016 found that women who date women didn’t feel as unsafe on dating apps as women who date men. But some LGBTQ people also have a fear of being outed or harassed by people they connect to online.
Tinsley emphasizes, “Users would feel safer if the people running these apps were protecting them by verifying the backgrounds of people they allow on their apps.”
Still, it’s not keeping people from dating online. Between 2013 and 2015, use of online dating tripled. But perhaps they’re right to be worried: According to the MyLife.com survey, more than 1 in 5 people had actually been taken advantage of — harassed, robbed, attacked or otherwise messed with — by someone they met while looking for love.