Ryerson study finds dating apps linked to symptoms of social anxiety and depression

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By Sophie Chong

A study published by a group of Ryerson psychology students has discovered a link between social anxiety and depression and the extensive use of dating apps. 

The study, titled Associations Between Social Anxiety, Depression, and Use of Mobile Dating Applications was published in October 2020. Their analysis was based on 243 participants from the U.S. who have previously used dating apps. Participants completed an online questionnaire in 2019 that measured their symptoms of social anxiety and depression, as well as their motivation for using dating apps.  

According to Beverley Fredborg, a Ryerson clinical psychology Ph.D student and a co-author of the study, this is one of the first research studies addressing the connection between mental health and dating apps.

A Tinder Motivations Scale, inspired by previous research from the University of Amsterdam, was used to measure participant incentive for use of dating apps. The scale measured six main reasons why people used Tinder: love, casual sex, ease of communication, the thrill of excitement, self-worth validation and trendiness. In accordance with the study, self worth validation is defined as “validating the sexual attractiveness of one’s own appearance and feeling better about oneself in general.”

Symptoms of social anxiety and depression were revealed to predict the motivation behind the use of dating apps in participants. For example, Fredborg explained that people who reported higher levels of depression tended to report more extensive use of dating apps for self-worth validation. 

“[We] found that women with depression were more likely than men with depression symptoms to endorse using mobile dating apps for self-worth,” said Fredborg. 

The study further revealed that socially anxious women were more likely to use dating apps to find love, compared to men with social anxiety. 

Although men were shown to still be more likely to initiate conversation with women, male participants with symptoms of social anxiety and depression were shown to have a lower likelihood of initiating contact with a dating app match. 

Anxiety Canada defines people with social anxiety as individuals who are uncomfortable or nervous in social situations. They tend to be concerned about doing something humiliating, embarrassing or having others think badly of them. As such, the study noted that people who are socially anxious can find it hard to initiate dates due to a fear of rejection or negative judgement. 

Stefani Goerlich, a sex therapist and social worker, said in an interview with Bustle that dating apps provide shy and anxious people with a safe place to socialize. The option to think about the way you want to respond in conversation takes the stress out of social interactions, compared to being put on the spot in person.

“When I go off [the apps] I try to get back to my normal life, but then you start getting [lonely] feelings again”

Rhianne Dela Cruz, a fourth-year Ryerson sociology student, said she was more likely to initiate conversation with someone she was attracted to online than in person. 

“It’s easier to hide the embarrassment of rejection,” she said. “You can easily unfriend them or block them [on social media] later on.” 

Dating apps have recently skyrocketed in popularity, with global dating app revenue seeing a 82 per cent increase since 2015. In March last year, Tinder was the highest grossing non-game app worldwide, reporting almost US $77 million in user spending, and a valuation of $10 billion, according to Business of Apps.

Alvomedia, a digital marketing company, wrote that Tinder has made itself popular with users through peer recommendations, offering a competitive dating pool of millions of users, and increasing online engagement through connection with Facebook and Instagram.

Although Tinder boasts that there have been at least 55 million matches made worldwide, Dela Cruz expressed frustration over the lack of meaningful romantic connections she’d made over the past few months on the app. 

“When I engage in conversations with [men], they often lead to conversations about being ‘down to fuck’…or dead end conversations where they’re not even trying,” said Dela Cruz. “Sometimes I’ll start the conversations but they don’t want to extend it.” 

Another finding in the study was that some users also experience anhedonia. Anhedonia, which is a symptom of depression that describes the inability to feel pleasure, can make it “difficult [for people] to meet dating partners through outings or set-ups.” 

Fredborg stressed that a caveat to the study was that it did not show a causation of negative effects on mental health from dating apps. Rather, it showed a correlation between the extent of using dating apps and the presence of symptoms of mental illness among participants. 

“I think this study encourages us to take a look at our own behaviour, and offer us a chance at reflection of what the function is of using the dating apps in our life right now,” said Fredborg. 

Finding love in sickness and in health

Cassandra, a fourth-year Ryerson criminology student, said dating apps help her feel validated in a time where she would typically prefer to meet someone in person. 

“When people swipe right on you, you feel really good about yourself, or just knowing there are people who think you’re cute or something,” she said. “When I go off [the apps] I try to get back to my normal life, but then you start getting [lonely] feelings again…and then that’s when I hop back on.”

According to Business Insider, this year’s pandemic lockdowns have been pushing singles to turn to online dating, reporting a 15 per cent increase in new subscribers across 45 online dating platforms in August of last year. 

“I use [dating apps] as a way to distract myself from what’s going on”

Bumble was the only dating app, among the top nine most popular mobile dating apps in the U.S., to provide guidelines backed by mental health professionals addressing mental well-being while dating during the pandemic. The company aimed to provide support on how to maintain confidence in oneself and social connections while dating during the pandemic, according to their website.  

Some of the advice included reminding daters to be compassionate with themselves in adjusting to this new reality, in addition to taking breaks and remembering to just have fun in general. 

Although Dela Cruz does not feel that dating apps have affected her own mental health significantly, she considers it a general reprieve from the pandemic. With multiple family members having been treated for COVID-19, and being recently laid off from her job because of the pandemic, she believes dating apps have helped her redirect her focus from her own life issues. 

“I use [dating apps] as a way to distract myself from what’s going on,” she said. “I’m hoping to get the same level of distraction I would get from if I were to hang out with someone in person.” 

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that global dating app revenue increased by 125 per cent since 2015. The Eyeopener regrets this error.

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