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The psychological effects of online dating

Reviewed by Theresa Fry

A woman looking at an online dating profile on an app.

To swipe let, or to swipe right on a potential match? That is the question. And it basically sums up the way people choose who they want to date nowadays.

When you have access to a virtual lineup of potential matches within X miles that you can judge quickly by glancing over a profile photo and a few personal details, why bother trying to meet people the old-fashioned way? 

It’s not that the old-fashioned way doesn’t work—it’s just that using an online dating app is so much more convenient and instantly gratifying.

Unfortunately for everyone who’s ever thought about trying online dating, the ease and convenience of being able to connect instantly with potential matches comes with its fair share of problems. Many of these problems have existed since online dating was in its infancy, but today, they’re extremely common and in some cases, quite severe.

Women who are looking to date men, for instance, often have to deal with countless men relentlessly bombarding them with connection requests. If a woman does decide to connect with a man, she may face verbal harassment from him—particularly if she refuses to do something he asks her to do, or if she says something that challenges his ego in some way.

There are lots of online dating options for the LGBTQ+ community nowadays, including a variety of dedicated apps, but that doesn’t necessarily make dating any easier. Although online dating has made it easier for LGBTQ+ individuals to approach others by already knowing their sexual identity, it’s been criticized for being rather superficial, with a big emphasis on looks and casual hookups over personality and long-term relationship potential.

And then there are the heterosexual men on dating sites and apps who have a hard time trying to capture—and keep—a woman’s attention. In an effort to stand out, these men may request to connect with as many women as possible that they find attractive, and then engage in many casual conversations simultaneously with the women who accept their connection requests.

In the end, however, a man may be ignored completely or “ghosted” after his match either loses interest in him or finds someone else she’d rather spend her time chatting with.

But these scenarios only scratch the surface of what can go wrong with online dating. 

Why Online Dating Can Be So Hard

Ever wonder why online dating seems to be so mentally and emotionally taxing? It’s not just you—many people wonder this, probably more than they’d like to admit.

Here’s the thing: online dating tends to amplify problems that are inherent to the nature of dating itself. Consider the following:

Initial attraction tends to be superficial. Everyone knows that when creating an online dating profile they should pick a photo that gets them noticed. Unfortunately, this can lead some people to choose a photo that looks nothing like them in real life. If you think you chose a photo that accurately represents you, but you’re not getting any requests to connect from potential matches, that can really do a number on your self-esteem.

The choices can be overwhelming. The number of available singles you have the ability to connect with will overload your brain with questions. How do you know who’s worth talking to? How do you choose who to spend more time connecting with? How do you avoid wasting all of your free time chatting with too many different people? How do you know when you should meet up with someone in person?

The process itself is exhausting. Many people describe the dating process as being similar to a long, drawn-out job interview. You have to start with building a connection on the site or app first, then it’s a whole new ballgame when you meet in person. Many people don’t exactly embody who they portrayed themselves to be online, which can be both confusing and disappointing.

There’s a high rejection rate. With so many potential matches at every online dater’s fingertips, there are more people to consider dating—and at the same time, more people to consider rejecting (or ignoring). It’s also very difficult to try to interpret a person’s intentions through a screen. So even when you think things may be going well, a match could decide to break it off when you least expect it, or worse—never respond again.

How Online Dating Impacts Your Mental Health

When it comes to dating—both online and in person—our emotions tend to rule the game. We can try to be as logical and practical about it as we want, but in the end, it’s often our emotional desires and tendencies that drive our thoughts and behaviors.

When all you want is to find someone you really like and have them like you back, it can be extremely difficult not to be driven by self-focused thoughts and emotions. Exercising awareness and seeing things from a greater perspective can quickly go right out the window.

Consider some of the following mental health-affecting experiences that are very common in the online dating world: 

  • Worrying about how your profile is being judged by others
  • Feeling anxious about initiating contact with someone
  • Becoming obsessed with looking for new matches or checking messages
  • Wondering when a match might read your message and message you back
  • Questioning whether someone is being truthful about who they are
  • Fantasizing about the type of person you want someone to be when you finally meet them in real life
  • Interpreting every rejection or lack of response as a sign that there’s something wrong with you (or your profile)
  • Worrying about saying the wrong thing, or how your messages are being interpreted by the other person
  • Ruminating about whether there’s enough chemistry to justify meeting in person
  • Struggling with social anxiety when thinking about or planning to meet in person
  • Feeling burnt out from the energetically draining and time consuming cycle of browsing, swiping, messaging, and meeting up in person

In a study on swipe-based dating apps (like Tinder), researchers found that those who used these types of apps reported higher levels of anxiety, depression, and emotional distress compared to people who didn’t use them. 

Interestingly enough, another study found that those who struggled with mental health problems like anxiety and depression were also more likely to use dating apps. It also revealed that these people were less likely to initiate contact with someone they matched with.

How to Protect Your Mental Health When You Date Online

Online dating is somewhat of a mental health minefield. There’s a lot you can’t control, everyone’s emotions are at stake, and even the most levelheaded people can be thrown for a loop from time to time.

You may not be able to completely avoid bad online dating experiences, but you can certainly do your best to make them less severe and be well prepared to deal with the situation in a safe and healthy way. 

Here’s what you can do to make sure you’re making your mental health a top priority when dating online:

First, get brutally honest about why you’re into online dating. This goes deeper than the desire to find love. Perhaps you’re lonely, bored, looking for external validation, or you want to make a former partner jealous. A licensed therapist can help you uncover and resolve issues like these so you can reenter the dating world from a more mentally and emotionally stable place.

Do what it takes to build a healthy sense of self-esteem. It’s important to have a strong sense of self in the online dating world so you don’t take common slights personally. After all, other people’s actions and behaviors aren’t really about you—they’re about them. The more you’re able to be yourself and be confident about it, the stronger and healthier the relationships you’ll tend to attract.

Set clear limits with communication and time spent on platforms. Dating sites and apps can be extremely addictive, sucking up all of your free time and energy if you’re not careful. Instead of trying to keep conversations going with as many matches as possible, draw the line at a specific limit—perhaps three, four, or five at a time. Disable app notifications to avoid being distracted at all hours of the day. Instead, schedule a block of time here or there for your online dating activities.

Plan to meet up in person as soon as you feel comfortable. It turns out that we’re really bad at figuring out whether we’re going to like someone in person after spending any amount of time communicating with them online. Rather than dragging out the online banter, ask to meet up with a match as soon as you think it’s a good idea to. This helps avoid wasting too much of each other’s time and energy.

Take breaks when things don’t work out. When online dating doesn’t bring the results you hoped for, take it as an opportunity to rest, reflect, and reconnect with yourself. This is absolutely essential for preventing burnout. You may also want to reassess your strategy by changing up your profile, expanding your location limit for matches, and being more open to connecting with people who don’t necessarily check off every requirement you may be looking for.

Have Faith in the Process, and in Yourself

Dating—both online and offline—is a process. You may want to find the love of your life as soon as realistically possible, but there may be a lot you still need to learn about yourself, about relationships, and about life before that can happen.

So, embrace it. The more you remain open to stepping into the unknown (with caution, of course), accepting that it may not go perfectly, and learning from the experience—the faster you’ll grow. And the faster you grow, the greater the possibilities you’ll be able to unlock for yourself.

Happily-ever-afters can happen on dating sites and apps. The question is, are you in a good enough headspace (and “heart” space) right now to allow the process to unfold the way it’s meant to unfold for you?

About the author

Elise Burley is a member of the therapist.com editorial team. She has more than a decade of professional experience writing and editing on a variety of health topics, including for several health-related e-commerce businesses, media publications, and licensed professionals. When she’s not working, she’s usually practicing yoga or off the grid somewhere on her latest canoe camping adventure.