Digital dating can do a number on your mental health. Luckily, there's a silver lining.
If swiping through hundreds of faces while superficially judging selfies in a microsecond, feeling all the awkwardness of your teen years while hugging a stranger you met on the Internet, and getting ghosted via text after seemingly successful dates all leave you feeling like shit, you're not alone.
In fact, it's been scientifically shown that online dating actually wrecks your self-esteem. Sweet.
Why Online Dating Isn't Great for Your Psyche
Rejection can be seriously damaging—it's not just in your head. As one CNN writer put it: "Our brains can't tell the difference between a broken heart and a broken bone." Not only did a 2011 study show that social rejection really is akin to physical pain (heavy), but a 2018 study at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology indicated that online dating, specifically picture-based dating apps (hi, Tinder), can lower self-esteem and increase odds of depression. (Also: There might soon be a dating component on Facebook?!)
Feeling rejected is a common part of the human experience, but that can be intensified, magnified, and much more frequent when it comes to digital dating. This can compound the destruction that rejection has on our psyches, according to psychologist Guy Winch, Ph.D., who's given TED Talks on the subject. "Our natural response to being dumped by a dating partner or getting picked last for a team is not just to lick our wounds, but to become intensely self-critical," wrote Winch in a TED Talk article.
In 2016, a study at the University of North Texas found that "regardless of gender, Tinder users reported less psychosocial well-being and more indicators of body dissatisfaction than non-users." Yikes. "To some individuals, being rejected (online or in person) can be devastating," says John Huber, Psy.D., an Austin-based clinical psychologist. And you may be turned down at a higher frequency when you experience rejections via dating apps. "Being turned down frequently may cause you to have a crisis of self-confidence, which could affect your life in a number of ways," he says.
1. Face vs. Phone
The way we communicate online could factor into feelings of rejection and insecurity. "Online and in-person communication are completely different; it's not even apples and oranges, it's apples and carrots," says Kevin Gilliland, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist based in Dallas.
IRL, there are a lot of subtle nuances that get factored into an overall "I like this person" feeling, and you don't have that luxury online. Instead, a potential match is reduced to two-dimensional data points, says Gilliland.
When we don't hear from someone, get the response we were hoping for, or get outright rejected, we wonder, "Is it my photo? Age? What I said?" In the absence of facts, "your mind fills the gaps," says Gilliland. "If you're a little insecure, you're going to fill that with a lot of negativity about yourself."
Huber agrees that face-to-face interaction, even in small doses, can be beneficial in our tech-driven social lives. "Sometimes taking things slower and having more face-to-face interactions (especially in dating) can be positive," he says. (Related: These Are the Safest and Most Dangerous Places for Online Dating In the U.S.)
2. Profile Overload
It could also come down to the fact that there are simply too many choices on dating platforms, which could inevitably leave you less satisfied. As author Mark Manson says in The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: "Basically, the more options we're given, the less satisfied we become with whatever we choose because we're aware of all the other options we're potentially forfeiting."
Researchers have been studying this phenomenon: One study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reported that extensive choices (in any scenario) can undermine your subsequent satisfaction and motivation. Too many swipes can make you second-guess yourself and your decisions, and you're left feeling like you're missing the bigger, better prize. The result: Feelings of emptiness, sadness, listlessness, and even depression.
And when you're speed swiping, you could be setting yourself up for anxiousness. "Online dating greatly increases the frequency at which we select or turn away people that we could have a romantic engagement with," says Huber. "The speed at which this happens can cause a person to experience stress and anxiety." (Related: What Boxing Can Teach You a Lot About Relationships)
3. Unfinished Business
Have you been actively swiping, DMing, and buzzing around Bumble, but nothing's been coming to fruition in the form of dates? You're not alone. PEW research found that "one-third of online daters have not yet met up in real life with someone they initially found on an online dating site." That's a pretty substantial chunk.
It's not out of fear. Many people put off online dates in hopes that something better—typically in the form of serendipity—happens first. Will you catch eyes with a hottie at the grocery store? Bump into a future sweetheart on the subway? (After all, you get all those in-person attraction nuances you don't get on the internet.) But if those meet-cutes don't actualize (*shakes fist at sky*), you're left with the fruitless efforts from Hinge and The League, where you can watch countless conversations (and potential relationships) wither away right in front of you.
All of which, of course, leaves you feeling ghosted, rejected, and alone—some of the worst experiences for our psyches. Remember that 80-year-old Harvard study that proved relationships are what keep us healthy and alive longer? A desire for social approval and companionship is fundamental to humans, so those feelings of rejection can be seriously damaging.
So why do we keep doing this to ourselves? Apparently, the little hits of dopamine from mini victories—A match! A DM! A compliment! External validation!—are just enough to keep us hooked.
It's Not *All* Bad
Believe it or not, there are benefits to online dating that just might make it worth braving the apps. For one, they're actually relatively successful at getting people together: A long-running study of online dating conducted by Michael Rosenfeld, Ph.D., a sociologist at Stanford University, has found that roughly one of every four straight couples now meet on the Internet. (And for gay couples, it's even more common.)
Aside from your relationship status, there are mental perks too: "One of the benefits of online dating is management of social anxiety, which is far more common than people realize," says Gilliland. Did he just say... manage social anxiety? Yep! "It's difficult to break the ice and start the conversation; dating sites remove that angst. You can craft your conversations in text or email, which is a much easier start for a date and far less stressful. For some, it allows an experience that anxiety may have talked you out of."
Okay, so one point for Tinder. (Two, considering Tinder users actually have safer sex.) But there's more: Digitally dating provides a bit more structure than traditional courtship, which could mitigate general anxiety, says Gilliland. And on top of that, dating platforms can get the "non-negotiables" discussed in an upfront way. "In-person dating can sometimes take weeks or months to determine how someone values family, work, religion, or the things they are passionate about in life," he said. "Reading profiles of others can also lead to reflecting on why we value things and our openness to new things. If we use it well, we can learn a lot about ourselves and make some changes for the better."
To keep yourself from drowning in the despair of the digital dating world, "you may want to make sure you have some hedges in place to protect your ego," says Gilliland. "Don't make up stories, keep tabs on your level of discouragement, be comfortable with the unknown (you really have no idea why your profile may or may not get interest), and remember: You're only looking for one person." (Ready to get back on the horse? Read: The Best Dating Apps for Health and Fitness Enthusiasts)