Women looking at phone
Many of us have experienced isolation due to lockdowns and various stay-at-home orders over the past year. For some people, such isolation has brought with it feelings of severe loneliness, resulting in increased rates of depression and a sense of anxiety or trepidation about participating in future social situations.
What will be the effect of isolation on the use of dating apps? For example, is it likely that people will use dating apps for different reasons because of increased rates of depression and social anxiety, and will this be different for men and women?
These questions were explored by Ariella Lenton-Brym and colleagues in their study exploring the extent to which the symptoms of depression and social anxiety influence use of dating apps (Lenton-Brym, Santiago, Fredborg, & Antony, 2021). Ultimately, their findings offer some clues as to how our use of dating apps might change post-pandemic. The researchers recruited 374 participants and assessed them on several different measures.
Measuring Mental Health and Motivation for Dating
The depression anxiety stress scale assesses depression symptoms, along with anxiety and stress. The scale measures the extent to which respondents experience feelings such as being unnecessarily scared, having nothing to look forward to, or feeling agitated.
The social phobia inventory measures anxiety across various social situations, for example, going to social events such as parties, giving a speech, or just talking to strangers. Respondents are asked to report how much they have been troubled by or have been made anxious about these situations over the previous week.
The modified online dating inventory evaluates online dating site use using questions such as “How far would you travel to meet someone you had met online?” and “how many relationships have you had through using online dating?”
The Tinder motivations scale measures the extent to which people use Tinder for:
- Love: To find a romantic relationship or to contact a potential romantic partner.
- Casual Sex: To find someone to have sex with or to have a one-night stand.
- Ease of Communication: Making it easier to open up online, or feeling that online connections understand a person better.
- Validation and Self-Worth: To improve self-esteem, feel better about oneself or to feel more attractive.
- Thrill of Excitement: Because it is exciting.
- Trendiness: It is new, or everyone uses Tinder.
Differences Between Men and Women
Previous research on Tinder by Sumter, Vandenbosch and Ligtenberg (2017) found that overall, the motivation to use this app to find love outweighed the motivation to use it for casual sex. Despite this, many people did report that Tinder led to casual sex, with more men than women citing this as a reason for using it. Furthermore, men cited ease of communication as a reason for using Tinder more than women. However, no gender differences were found for reporting using Tinder for validation or self-worth.
The thrill of excitement as a reason for using Tinder, may be related to a tendency toward riskier offline behaviors such as one-night stands, and men were found more likely to report this as a reason for using Tinder compared with women.
Depression and anxiety
In the present study by Lenton-Brym and colleagues, when the researchers factored in depression and anxiety scores alongside the motivation to use dating apps, they found that as depression and anxiety increased, various reasons for using dating apps such as Tinder also increased, with some notable gender differences. Overall, the association between social anxiety, depression symptoms and dating app use was more prevalent in women than in men.
For women, there was a relationship between social anxiety and the motivation to use dating apps for love, casual sex, ease of communication and the thrill of excitement. In other words, socially anxious women reported using dating apps for these reasons. The same relationships were not found for men.
Similarly, the researchers found an association between depression and dating app use for casual sex, ease of communication, the thrill of excitement and validation and self-worth, in women but not in men. Such that women who scored higher on depression reported using dating apps for these reasons more for these reasons.
The researchers speculate that these findings can be explained in terms of previous research outlining gender differences in using technology, with women using technology more for communication purposes compared to men. In the lockdowns where levels of social anxiety and depression might increase, and where the facility for face-to-face social interaction is compromised, women are more driven to employ technology for the purposes of communication compared to men.
Finally, the researchers noted that both men and women who scored high on social anxiety reported using dating apps for validation and self-worth. Those who are socially anxious may fear being negatively evaluated in a face-to-face context, and therefore employ dating apps for the purpose of receiving validation.
Man looking at phone
Source: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock
In the current study men with higher levels of social anxiety and depression were found to be less likely to make contact with the women with whom they had matched compared to men with lower levels of social anxiety and depression. For women, social anxiety and depression did not affect their likelihood of making contact with their dating app matches. In fact, women were unlikely to make contact with their matches regardless of whether they displayed high or low levels of social anxiety and depression, a finding consistent with what may be considered traditional gender roles in relationship initiation, where men are more likely to make the first move.
Interestingly, the fact that men with higher levels of depression and social anxiety were less likely to make contact with the women with whom they had matched, compared to men with lower levels of depression and social anxiety, suggests that the use of dating apps might not necessarily be effective in helping these men overcome such potential barriers in their romantic pursuits.
One major limitation of this study is that it does not enable us to conclude whether people with depressions and anxiety are likely to use dating apps or if people become more depressed and anxious because they use dating apps. However, whether the lockdown restrictions and stay-at-home orders continue, or whether we return to normal as before, the findings from this study suggest that the consequences of the resulting isolation may change our motivations for using dating apps for some time to come.