A psychiatrist’s view on internet dating


I thought I’d take time to write about internet dating, the kind that uses social media as platform. Its not intended to be a ‘fun police’ kid of discourse, but in an industry that is unregulated, with a myriad of available options that can have consequences, positive or negative on a person’s wellbeing, it is timely.

After living through the 2 decades during and since the time  “Sex and the City”  (SATC) was every girl’s best friend, I have noticed a huge change in the expectations and limitations of finding the right person and going on to live happily ever after. In twenty years the concept of dating has changed very little but the introduction of technology into the mix has been a total game changer. Remember that scene in SATC when a voicemail message from ‘Big’ on a clunky handset on the bedside table left Aiden and Carrie at the crossroads for the second time? I am sure 2018 Carrie would be the owner of a smart phone that could be silenced to avoid such catastrophes.

What I remember from watching every episode of Sex and the City, sometimes multiple times, is that meeting men was always random. The 4 main protagonists, Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha would meet to discuss the men they were currently dating, lament, celebrate or remain ambivalent about being single or deciding whether to get married. The men that came into their lives in a perfectly orchestrated chaotic way, gave them something to talk about when they caught up at the café or over dinner. They would be introduced to a potential partner via a friend, be asked out at the gym, or while training for a marathon, and in Samantha’s case, after sharing a cab ride to the upper east side. Ex partners would painfully crush their sunny days as they literally walked into them on a Manhatton street. Partners came and went, sometimes coming back again, but the girls were frustrated they couldn’t really control the chaos. Watch this 20 second grab of the girls lamenting the inability to find ‘the one’

Twenty years later and during the in between, social media has evolved to create easily usable applications that bring dating to the customer (because that is what we are after all). Introduction agencies have moved into virtual solutions that can be downloaded within minutes onto our smart phones. With catch banners and fancy names we can be hooked to the certainty these sites offer, and guaranteed more certainty if we actually pay money as well.

The concerning part is that this industry is completely unregulated. The adage that one can find a very bad match in real life thus defending the use of online apps doesn’t make sense, as the apps are unregulated, the hard data about success and the terms and conditions are often terribly difficult to find. Purchasing a premium package online does not guarantee a higher quality of a match, it probably just shows which matches didn’t feel it was financially sensible to pay.

In addition, deleting an account does not mean you disappear from the virtual world. Consider this before you take that free “20 minute personality profile” guaranteed to make your chances of finding a compatible partner even more likely. Popular sites offer this only for the consumer to find  that the service has no functionality until you sign up and pay. Within those series of questions, these clever companies have learned more about you that you might not tell a partner until the their 3rd or 4th date. Via GPS, or by signing into other apps, such as Facebook® they know who you are and where you live. They know your likes and dislikes. Thy know  how many children you have and often how much you earn. By uploading profile photos they can see images or detail in the shot that may reveal more. In a world where we are quite rightly more concerned about privacy than ever, this allure of guaranteed success, a departure from loneliness and lack of intimacy on our terms may blindsight us to consider the implications of a rather explicit ‘tell-all’.

Also, If you take time to read the fine print you’ll notice you don’t get your information back when you delete your profile. Often profiles are left up despite being deleted, to increase the number of fish in the pool. So if somebody does not respond when you send a wink, kiss, smile or message, they may actually have departed months ago, and are currently down at your favourite café having a coffee alone and reading the paper. Also, your personality profile is the company’s data forever. Or until you go through the channels to demand it back.

More popular apps such as Tinder® have taken over the way older adolescents and young adults view meeting other people. In fact, Tinder® claims to be the world’s most popular app for meeting new people (via official website). In some cases this is the only way users know how to make new friends or communicate with others, outside of peer groups formed in school. Swiping right and left when bored or lonely is just the same as playing the poker machines waiting for the win. Chemical releases of dopamine in the brain, a neurotransmitter that is involved in the feeling of reward and pleasure, occur in those who achieve success with a match on Tinder® just as they do if they win $200 on the poker machines.

As a psychiatrist, one of the sad things I see is that patients with anxiety disorders such as social anxiety or body image disorders feel these apps are their best friend. They can be as confident as they like behind the phone screen. If they get a match they are temporarily exuberant, then crushed when this means they have to present their selves, ones they might not feel so comfortable about to a real human being. They are likely to ‘ghost’ their match, or be ‘ghosted’ or cancel just before the arranged meeting time. This causes a whole new range of emotions that can be experienced anytime we put ourselves out to meet others, but seems more common, and sadly more acceptable using apps. It is as if we have created a forum to showcase bad manners. More and more, my therapy sessions are spent helping a patient deal with rejection after an online swiping experience, and I am constantly dismayed by how more common and nasty this has become.

Some of the hardest experiences in life generate from the act of being vulnerable, liking ourselves enough to feel valuable and attractive to others and tolerating disappointment and loneliness. All of these experiences are essential to our make up as human beings. They are just as important as learning tools, springboards for growth as are happiness, exuberance, love and intimacy. With the creation of an era that seems to sell the promise of have the latter without the former, and in real time sends all of the wrong messages. A patient with social anxiety would be encouraged and supported in therapy to gain confidence, and try, step by step to move out more into the external world. A patient with a body image disorder would be encouraged to do the same. No therapist would collude with the pathology and suggest continuing with the isolation. If anything this would reinforce a disordered sense of self, one not worthy of all the love, acceptance, connection and happiness that is out there.

And, 20 years after Sex and the City, the yellow cabs of New York have not been replaced by ‘white knights’ in Ubers®, tracked via your app and delivered to your door with a customer satisfaction rating. Sounds absurd? The online customer expectation, or the one that is sold to you by the glitzy website, is trying to tell you it isn’t.