The date is 15th May 2012, and the word “Phubbing” has just been added to the dictionary. A term used to describe the habit of snubbing someone in favour of a mobile phone, it’s become a phenomenon affecting relationships everywhere. Couples sit opposite each other in restaurants with eyes only for their smartphones. Selfies are uploaded to Instagram to compete for likes, instead of being added to albums to reminisce fondly over at a later date. Apps like Ashley Madison are even set up with the sole intention of making it easier for people to cheat on their partners.
But have smartphones simply become scapegoats of modern society? After all, there’s a lot to suggest our devices are actually bringing us together. A simple swipe right could be the start of something special, whilst one couple from London even got married recently as the result of a text message sent to the wrong number.
We’ve collated independent research from across the UK (and wider world) to offer a comprehensive look at how smartphones are shaping inter-personal relationships – whether that be romantic, familial, or friendship.
A heavy focus of the research we looked at was the number of partners that are meeting via dating apps and the strength of these relationships – especially when compared to traditional methods of meeting.
According to the research, almost 20% of relationships start through some form of dating app (either online or on mobile), which is in-keeping with the shift in public attitudes toward such methods. Of those actively seeking romance online, 52% use their smartphone to interact with their preferred dating app. While a majority of these will be heterosexual couples, non-heterosexual relationships also make up a significant number of couples that meet through mobile dating apps – 70% of LGBTQ+ relationships start online. It’s estimated that, by 2040, the vast majority (70%) of all relationships will begin through smartphone apps.
The biggest growing age-group for dating app usage is 55-64, with an estimated growth of 30% in the next decade. This might be due to this age group being one of the most common for divorce in the UK – 50 to 60-year-olds accounted for approximately 40% of all divorces in 2015. Conversely, data suggests that nearly 17% of married couples meet through online dating apps.
It’s estimated that nearly half of all mobile dating users lie about some aspect of their profile. 20% of women use a younger photo of themselves in their profile, while 40% of men lie about their occupation or interests. In a recent study, it was discovered that nearly 7% of all messages between dating app matches are deceptive. 37% of lies when messaging a potential partner were to make the sender appear more attractive and 30% were to avoid a face-to-face meeting.
From the way we meet to the way we interact the landscape of dating has been transformed by smartphones. Gone are the days of meeting in a bar or writing love letters (circa 1894) – today’s romantics have turned to technology to solve their woes, trusting in mobile apps such as Tinder, Bumble, and Grindr to help them find their perfect match. This isn’t to say that chance meetings or ‘classic’ romance doesn’t happen, but it is definitely becoming less common; in fact, the number of people meeting through traditional means, such as through friends or work, has dropped from 18% to 12% in the last few years alone.
Why People Use Dating Apps
The most obvious reason for the increase in dating app users – Tinder alone has over 50 million active accounts – is their convenience when compared to traditional ways of meeting people. Rather than going out and finding a date or waiting to be introduced to a friend of a friend, you can easily find other singletons in your local area and match with people that share your interests. In this way, smartphones have had a tremendous effect on relationships – they changed the very idea of meeting and initiating romantic relationships.
Aimee Hartstein, LCSW, a psychotherapist who has experience in dealing with relationships, feels that smartphones have had an extremely positive effect on people taking back control of their love life:
“It used to be that people, especially women, had to sit and wait to be asked out or meet someone at a bar. It was often frustrating or and disappointing if nothing happened. But with the advent of internet dating and smartphones, people can really work on their relationship life and actually make dates happen.”
This is especially useful for those who live in major cities or cultural hubs as it allows them to quickly find romantic relationships in areas where they may not know many people, or meeting new people may be difficult. eHarmony estimates that 22% of couples in the South East of England (including London) met through a dating app or website, which supports the idea that those in large, metropolitan areas, have an easier time using dating apps. On the other hand, those that live in remote areas may not benefit as much from mobile dating apps, as they can be limited by location range.
An App for Everyone
A big draw for dating apps and the world of online dating is that it allows individuals to find singletons with similar interests, traits, and hobbies as them. As most dating apps allow you to include a bio or pictures as part of your profile, this allows members to express their interests to potential dates, as well as being able to see theirs in return. This allows daters to find matches that enjoy the same things they do and increase the chances of forming a relationship. Equally, it allows people to find dates with a totally different world-view to themselves.
However, there are also apps that exist for sub-sections of society, which aim to connect people that may otherwise struggle to find each other. This can be as broad as sexuality-specific apps, such as Grindr, to religious-based sites like Catholic Singles, or as niche as a dating app for the Furry community. As of the beginning of 2018, there were approximately 7,500 dating apps and websites – ranging from generic mainstays such as Tinder, Plenty of Fish, and Bumble, to relatively recent entries such as DonaldDaters, a dating app specifically for supporters of President Trump.
“Niche dating apps exist to fill a void.” Emily Moreno, a spokesperson for DonaldDaters, says, “Our app exists for online dating users that feel forced off the mainstream dating apps. People are told on the mainstream apps, ‘If you’re a Trump supporter, swipe left.’ Trump supporters that do get a date either self-censor or don’t get a follow up date.”
This demonstrates the relevance of unique dating apps in today’s culture – allowing those that may feel unwelcome on traditional dating apps (for whatever reason) to find a safe space to express themselves and find romance.
Without some of these apps it would be difficult, if not impossible, for some members of our society to find dates with shared interests, so it’s easy to see how the introduction of smartphones has boosted connectivity for everyone.
To get a sense of how and why people start niche dating apps, we spoke to John Kershaw, the founder of Bristlr, a dating app for peole who love beards, and M14 industries, a online dating software developer. You can read his interview here.
Sexual Relationships & Exploration
Another positive for the emergence of online dating apps is that they allow users to explore their sexuality outside of relationship constraints. This has led to the rise of kink dating apps, such as Kinkstr and KNKI, which let members search for partners that share their kink and arrange hook-ups in a safe and open way.
Even users on mainstream dating apps feel more comfortable exploring their sexual kinks with strangers, rather than introducing the idea to an existing partner and risk shame or rejection. To broach BDSM, domination, or role-play fantasies – whatever you’re into – to a complete stranger is much easier when you know that if they decline, they don’t know you personally and you can simply un-match and move on, no harm done.
To find out what sort of kinks and fantasies people are asking for, we spoke to a frequent dating app user to find out what’s she’s been asked on dates, and her feelings toward sexual exploration online.
Furthermore, the abundance of kink-centric apps has helped make explorative sex mainstream. The sheer number of hook-up and kink apps demonstrates that it’s no longer something for a select few, but a growing, thriving community of people looking for better sexual relationships through their smartphone.
While this allows people to be more experimental in their sexual relationships, it’s also a way for long-time members of the kink community to find partners, feeding back into the idea of niche dating apps and their positive contribution to the dating scene.
For all that smartphones have done to increase our connectivity with one another, there’s strong evidence to suggest that they are pushing relationships further apart. One of the most striking elements of how smartphones affect relationships is the phenomenon of ‘phubbing’ – where one member of a couple or group ignores others in favour of their smartphone – which has become more apparent in recent years. According to YouGov, over 53% of UK adults check their phone frequently while they’re out to dinner, demonstrating the growing reliance on smartphones, even in intimate settings, and the ways in which individuals can disconnect from each other through their mobile.
This has also become a very real problem for those in romantic relationships, where traditionally intimate moments are often supplanted by couples looking at their phones and becoming disconnected. Research shows that spouses who ‘phub’ each other are more likely to experience depression and lower marriage satisfaction.
Aimee Hartstein says that post-intimacy pillow talk is a perfect example of how smartphones have made us disconnect from our partners:
“It used to be that a couple would be intimate and then spend time afterwards connecting and talking. Of course, many couples still do that, but the lure of the smartphone is very addicting so often they will both roll over and connect with their phones instead of each other. It can end up being a great loss of opportunity, connection, and feeling.”
Social media is often used as an example of how connected we can be – with hundreds of friends and followers that like and share what we say. However, research from the University of Pittsburgh indicates that those that use social media frequently (more than 58 times a week) are 3 times more likely to feel lonely than those that use it less often (under 9 times a week), showing that supplementing real relationships for internet relationships isn’t always healthy. This might be why 75% of people still prefer a physical catch-up rather than talking online.
While the emergence of mobile dating apps has been revolutionary for heterosexual couples – nearly a third of all relationships begin online – it has also been deeply impactful for the LGBTQ+ community. In ‘The Strength of Absent Ties: Social Integration via Online Dating’, research shows that 70% of LGBTQ+ couples meet through mobile and online dating apps, which is far more than heterosexual couples. This is primarily due to the LGBTQ+ community having less places, or feeling as if they have less places, to meet in traditional ways. For LGBTQ+ communities in non-metropolitan areas, dating apps allow them to meet romantic partners easily, without having to put their sexuality “out there” for public display. For many LGBTQ+ daters, this makes them feel less vulnerable and less likely to face rejection, and apps like Grindr or HER, which are geared specifically toward the LGBTQ+ community, make it easier for same-sex couples to find each other.
While Grindr has a strong homosexual, cisgender male following, there are hundreds of mobile dating apps which cater to a range of sexualities and preferences – another way in which their introduction have had a positive effect on relationships. For example, Transdr, a dating app for transgender and non-binary people, is a place where members of the community can meet each other without feeling discriminated against or fetishised. Many of these apps also help to strengthen relationships within the community. For example, HER, a dating app primarily aimed at gay cisgender women, also offers users regular updates on local LGBTQ+ events and news, helping people to feel more connected.
Negative Effects in the LGBTQ+ Community
However, while LGBTQ+ dating apps have become a source of safety for the community, they are not without their problems, especially when it comes to internal divisions such as racism and transphobia. Grindr is the most famous example of this on a dating app, where it has become common for users to openly state that they do not want to chat to or meet with whole ethnic communities or gender identities. There have also been accusations of body-shaming on Grindr, with users rejecting each other based on a idealised vision of what they’re looking for. This is usually masked as ‘sexual preference’, with users of the hook-up app simply stating what they are not looking for in order to quickly find their ‘type’. However, the casual dismissal of whole swathes of society is clearly harmful for the forming of relationships on dating sites and apps. This a clear indictment of the dynamics of dating apps, as users become desensitised to others’ feelings and focus solely on what they want, without taking the time to talk and connect with people outside of their ‘type’.
To help combat this worrisome trend, Grindr have launched the Kindr campaign, which aims to crack down on racism and abusive behaviour on the app. This is being achieved by increasing the in-house moderation team and handing out bans to users caught using offensive or derogatory language.
Why People Lie on Dating Apps
A major concern for using a smartphone as the foundation of a relationship is the ability to lie or mislead romantic interests. In a 2018 study titled, ‘Deception in Mobile Dating Conversations’, researchers found that 7% of all mobile dating communications were classed as deceptive. ‘Deceptive’, in this instance, was classed as a lie regarding self-presentation or availability management – for example, men often exaggerated their height while women would underestimate their weight.
In a study of 110 participants, subjects showed researchers 20 messages from conversations on their dating app of choice that had also switched to texting. The overwhelming majority used Tinder, with OkCupid and Grindr being runners up. From all the messages across the app and mobile, over 200 were classed as ‘somewhat deceptive’ while only 19 were described as ‘extremely deceptive’. 37% of all the lies were for self-presentation, in an effort to improve the subject’s attractiveness to whoever they were messaging.
This highlights one of the dangers of relationships and mobile phones, as it allows individuals to be deceptive before meeting face-to-face. Whilst the majority of the lies were minor, it creates a culture in which potential romantic partners feel the need to mask their true selves in order to please a romantic interest, which can be damaging for both parties. It’s also interesting to note that subjects who lied the most thought that their partner was also lying to them – there is a direct correlation between those that lied and those that thought they were being lied to. This suggests a cycle of deception within the online dating sphere which is harmful to the concept of finding romance through a smartphone.
Making Deceit Easier
The ability to connect with people remotely is, undoubtedly, one of the biggest benefits of smartphones. And when this is transferred to a dating context – where we can contact hundreds of people in our immediate vicinity – it opens up plenty of possibilities for us to connect with people we may otherwise never interact with.
Despite the positives, there are some concerns around mobile dating apps and the negative effects that it can have on society. An obvious negative is the ability for those in relationships or marriages to have affairs via their smartphone. Ashley Madison is the most famous example – a dating app that’s designed to help married people have extra-marital affairs. While we can never know the ins and outs of every relationship to pass judgement on whether using a service like this is acceptable, the fact that a mobile dating app exists that makes it easier for partners to cheat and lie to each other can only be a negative thing.
Catfishing is not a new phenomenon in the world of mobile dating, but those that seek to actively deceive romantic interests online are becoming more advanced in their tactics and it remains a real danger to those that frequent dating apps. It’s estimated that over 10% of dating app profiles are false – which constitutes catfishes, scammers, and bots – and that 28% of users have been contacted in a way that made them feel uncomfortable or harassed.
One of the most famous and comprehensive documentations of catfishing is the MTV show Catfish, which follows the lives of people who believe they’ve been catfished, and tries to uncover the truth of the people on the other end of the phone. A statistical analysis was made of the show’s catfish to offer some data on the lies that people tell when using dating platforms for deception:
While it’s very rare that individuals are in serious physical danger when being catfished, it can cause a lot of emotional distress and psychological distress for victims, making it a danger for those using dating apps. That’s why it’s important for individuals to spot the signs of a catfish before they become too heavily invested in the relationship.
Data Breaches & Hacks
One of the biggest risks of using a dating app or site is that your personal, sensitive data could be taken and used without your consent. This isn’t as much of a risk with larger companies that have heavily invested in data protection, such as Tinder, Match, or Plenty of Fish. However, for less popular dating apps the danger is increased.
One of the most notorious examples of a data breach from a dating app is when Ashley Madison was hacked in 2015. Over 25GBs of company data was stolen and leaked online, including the names, addresses and messages of active users. While the ramifications for the leaked users is hard to quantify, it’s clear that using dating apps carries a risk of sensitive information getting into the wrong hands. Obviously, for users of Ashley Madison, a security leak is worse because of the nature of the app. DonaldDaters, an app for Donald Trump supporters, suffered a similar breach in October 2018, further highlighting the risks of sharing personal data on dating apps.
Equally, bots and scammers are a real threat to individuals using online dating services, as they can entice vulnerable users in – like a catfish – and take advantage of them for monetary gain. Wiping out fake accounts and bots has become a major priority for independent dating apps, as their user base can very easily be taken over by insidious accounts, due to a lack of moderation and data security software.
George Kidd, CEO of the Online Dating Association, a trade body for online dating services, says that its members strive for a, “great and safe dating experience.” regardless of the size of their user-base. “In coming months national governments, the EU and others will be looking at issues of digital safety and at social media platforms in particular. We will be explaining how we think dating apps and services fit into this agenda. That means we must, as a sector, work to high standards and understand our responsibilities.”
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