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Dating apps turn finding love into a video game — and lots of people lose

Watch the CBSN Originals documentary, "Speaking Frankly: Dating Apps," in the video player above.

When Alexandra Tweten moved from Minnesota to Los Angeles, dating apps offered a way to find love in a town where she didn't know a soul. "It was exciting matching with different people and sometimes you could meet people that you would never meet in real life. Just different kinds of people."

But she quickly learned that exposure to a much larger pool of people hiding behind their sometimes false profiles had significant downsides. "The first few people that I matched with on Tinder, I ended up being in a situation where they wanted to Skype with me," she recalled, "and at least three of these guys started masturbating in front of me … when I hadn't really given them the OK."

Many users have reported experiencing harassment and bad behavior on dating apps, and they may end up feeling more disconnected and lonely than they were when trying to find love the traditional way. Madeleine Fugère, Ph.D., a relationship expert and social psychology professor at Eastern Connecticut State University, says the endless cycle of looking for — and failing to find — a meaningful match on dating apps happens by design.

"If you were to connect with the first person that you met on a dating app and meet that person and fall in love, they wouldn't have any more business, right?" says Fugère. "So it is sometimes in their interest to keep you interested in seeing dating as a game, and an ongoing game." 

Are dating apps really just data apps? 10:57

The "game" comes with a growing array of negative experiences reported by users. Sexual harassment, ghosting, catfishing (that is, luring people with a fake online persona), and meaningless one-night stands seem to be rampant on these platforms. According to Fugère, the anonymity of a digital profile and the lack of accountability embolden bad behavior.

"[The anonymity] sort of makes us lose our sense of self. And so we end up doing behaviors that we wouldn't ordinarily do, which can be anything from making a nasty comment to sending a lewd photograph to making a connection with someone and then disappearing," she said.

These issues don't seem to deter people from trying. Americans are seeking — and finding — love online now more than ever: one study found about 65% of same-sex couples and 39% of heterosexual couples who paired up in in 2017 met online. Dating apps have tens of millions of users, and the global online dating market could be worth $12 billion by 2020.

Yet even with these tools at our fingertips, loneliness has reached "epidemic levels," according to a recent survey by the health services company Cigna. It found that 46% of U.S. adults report sometimes or always feeling lonely, and Generation Z — young adults age 18 to 22 — were the loneliest of all.

How are dating apps changing relationships? 11:08

If treating online dating like a video game causes problems, some experts say finding a solution will require cultural, not just technological, changes.

"I think that one way that people can theoretically tackle the issue associated with gamification is through understanding what they're doing," said Jess Carbino, Ph.D., a former in-house sociologist at Tinder and Bumble. "If people feel like they're mindlessly swiping, they need to change their behavior. I don't believe that the apps inherently make people less mindful." 

She points out that despite the downsides, many app users eventually find a match. A study published in 2013 that included over 19,000 people who married between 2005 and 2012 found that over a third of those marriages had started online, and the rate of divorce for people who met online was 25% lower than those who met offline. Carbino says this is why people continue to use them, and mentions her own personal success.

"The way that these apps have grown is through social learning. People have had a positive experience on them and then they tell their friends, 'Oh I met my boyfriend on Tinder' or 'I met my husband on Tinder.' And I met Joel on Tinder and we are married."

Pushing back against dating app culture 08:06

Fugère agrees there are "many positive consequences" to dating apps, along with the negative ones. "I've always thought, as a relationship expert, that when you stop playing games, that's when you have the real opportunity to find love."

Match Group, the owner of five of the top 10 most used dating apps in the United States, according to the industry analytics firm App Annie, did not provide an official statement. But, in response to the claim that they try to keep users hooked on their platforms, a representative told CBS News: "People leave the platforms when they're having good in-real-life experiences, so the best marketing to get others to use apps is through hearing about the positive experiences of others." Another representative said, "Getting people off the product is the end goal."

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