The Independent's journalism is supported by our readers. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn commission. 


Can you really be ‘addicted’ to dating apps?

Mindlessly swiping right on profiles may give us the hit of dopamine we crave, but it misses the point entirely, writes Olivia Petter

Saturday 01 June 2024 13:05 BST
Few things compete with the feeling of validation you receive when you discover somebody you’re attracted to is also attracted to you
Few things compete with the feeling of validation you receive when you discover somebody you’re attracted to is also attracted to you (Getty)

If you’ve used a dating app you’ve played the game – but it’s not the one you think.

By now, though, you might be pretty good at it, having earned a high score by way of various situationships that came about after you swiped right. Or maybe your points are running a little lower – a common consequence of ghosting, breadcrumbing, and never matching with people you fancy. 

Perhaps you’re one of the lucky few to win the top prize: a real-life relationship with someone you not only tolerate but actually rather like. Wouldn’t that be rewarding?

The gamification of dating has been ongoing since apps arrived on our smartphones – I wrote an entire book about it in 2021. But now, like all games, it has become addictive. At least, that was what happened to Jamie Johnston, who told the BBC he found himself “addicted to the dopamine of it rather than actually trying to find a partner”, adding that he felt people started to give one another “scores” in a dehumanising manner that only made things worse.

Johnston, 34, also has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and has subsequently launched his own dating app, Mattr, with neurodivergence and de-gamification of the dating experience in mind. “People with autism and ADHD are most likely to ghost people, delete apps, ignore messages, avoid small talk and get to the point or be abrupt – it’s no wonder that dating apps are causing users to feel overwhelmed,” he added.

On Mattr, users can share details about any neurodiverse conditions they may have on their profiles. They are also given the chance to take breaks and let their matches know they’ll be doing so, while there are also options to reply via video for those who may struggle with typing. It’s a brilliant idea, and one that is long overdue, especially since a Mattr survey found that 94 per cent of neurodivergent respondents felt misunderstood by digital matchmaking services.

But will it do anything to curb dating app addictions? I’m not convinced. Like all social media platforms, dating apps have been optimised to keep us on them. And yes, this is despite the fact that some apps market themselves as being “designed to be deleted”. Think about it: the rush you feel when you get a match. The adrenaline that pulsates through your body amid an impulsive ricochet of flirty messages. 

Then when someone inevitably stops replying or agrees to a date only to then ghost you, you find yourself feeling adrift and in need of another hit. So you go back to the app, and start swiping again, looking for someone else to get your fix.

Of course, dating apps are addictive. Because dating is addictive. Few things compete with the feeling of validation you receive when you discover somebody you’re attracted to is also attracted to you. Apps have exploited that sensation by digitising it: rather than having to have an actual conversation with someone to find out if they like you back, now you just have to wait to see if your phone makes a little dinging sound to indicate you’ve matched with someone. The consequence of this is that it eventually minimises the intensity of feeling, numbing us to the excitement of it all.

I’m no psychologist, but I know from my own experience that matching with a stranger on an app does little to me anymore. Similarly, because I’ve never met anyone I’ve matched with, I’m not too bothered by not replying to someone, even after we’ve had a conversation. 

It’s a little like online shopping. You browse through various profiles, peruse superficial information (how someone looks, their height, whether they can write funny prompts or not) and use this to make monumental decisions based on your potential with that person (who isn’t really a person at all, but a trope defined by tidbits of intel). And the more you consume, the less you value any of it.

It’s an addiction that spells disaster for our love lives. Because the deeper we delve into it, the more desensitised we become. Photographs are reduced to avatars while personal information is weaponised for the most absurd reasons (“I refuse to date anyone under six foot” is a common refrain among dating app users). All of this means that single people become little more than vessels for validation – something to boost our ego or spice up a few hours on a Sunday evening. 

The game might be addictive, but it’s one we can only keep playing for so long.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in