You’re swiping right, you’re swiping left, you’re Coffee Meets Bageling, Hinging, HER-ing, and Tindering. This is how we’re finding flings, friends, partners, and more—and it’s as easy as a flick of the wrist. If you’re kinda into that sweet swiping sensation, you’re not alone.
The number of college-aged people (18- to 24-year-olds) digitally dating has almost tripled from 10 percent in 2013 to about 30 percent today, according to recent data from the Pew Research Center—no surprise, considering there are now dozens of dating apps to choose from. Plenty of people are still meeting each other the old-fashioned way (in person), but online options can make the dating pool feel a little broader and may be beneficial for those who are on the introverted side. Just like anything else, though, online dating has its pros and cons.
The Pew report found that almost two-thirds of online daters think meeting people via the internet is easier than being social IRL (in real life)—especially “when school and work get in the way. At its best, online dating puts an endless supply of potential partners (and friends) right in the palm of your hand.
In this new world of digital dating, you can connect with people you wouldn’t necessarily run into on campus, says Will Meyerhofer, LCSW, a New York City-based author and psychotherapist. “That can be really significant for trans or gay folks who might be more of a minority on campus,” he says.
Because saying “hey” through a screen tends to be less intimidating than doing so face-to-face, it’s also a great way to overcome shyness or anxiety about meeting people in person, Meyerhofer adds. “It makes starting a conversation easier when you already know the basics [about someone] from whatever they choose to put on their profile,” says Jude K., a second-year graduate student at Nova Scotia Community College.
All that choice can be overwhelming, caution the experts. “People tend to become consumers of people where they’re always looking for the next best thing and treating people like objects,” says Brooke Sprowl, LCSW, an individual and couples therapist in Los Angeles. “My concern is that they’re not developing the skills to go out of their comfort zone and approach someone. Instead of facing our anxieties, it can be really easy to escape them [by going] on a Tinder bender.”
And of course, it’s not always clear what people online are looking for. “I don’t like when some people use dating apps for hooking up when I’m using it to find a serious relationship,” says Claire C., a first-year graduate student at Saint Louis University in Missouri.
Whether you’re a fan or not, online dating is pervasive in today’s world, and it can be a tricky process to navigate. Here’s how to get the most out of it and make online dating work for you.
What we look for in a dating profile
When you’re setting up a profile on a dating app, that “About me” box can feel more intimidating than your chemistry final. (Tips on making yours amazing below.) Plus, many students lament how dating profiles tend to be based so heavily on appearances. “It makes it easier to connect, but I dislike how appearance-focused it is,” says Vee M., a third-year graduate student at the University of New Brunswick.
Physical attraction is indeed the biggest factor determining interest in a dating profile for both men and women, according to a 2016 study published in Computers in Human Behavior. However, how a profile fits (or doesn’t fit) with traditional gender role stereotypes was the second biggest factor that determined interest. The study of 447 college students found that they were more interested in profiles that didn’t fit with traditional gender stereotypes than in those that do (e.g., males who described themselves with words like “kind” or “affectionate,” and females who described themselves with words like “ambitious,” “analytical,” and “competitive” would have the most-liked profiles). In other words, busting stereotypes with your dating profile is a good thing.
But that doesn’t mean you should throw down adjectives that don’t actually describe you—the number-one thing to remember is that you want to be honest and authentic.
Experts weigh in: How to tackle that daunting task of creating your profile
1. Show, don’t tell. “Paint a picture of who you are instead of just listing adjectives,” says Sprowl. “Instead of saying you’re funny, make a joke that displays your humor.”
2. Choose pictures that show off your personality. To use your photos to the best advantage, upload as many interesting pics as you can—it’s “free real estate to show off the activities you enjoy doing,” says Julie Spira, an online dating expert and digital matchmaker. Your pictures should communicate something about who you are and what you enjoy.
3. Share what makes you stand out. “People tend to hide behind convention,” says Meyerhofer. “That’s kind of boring and it doesn’t really say anything about you.” If you’re obsessed with a particular indie band, say that. “Come out of your shell a little bit and take the risk of being yourself,” says Meyerhofer.
4. Your “About me” shouldn’t be all about you. While your number-one goal is to communicate something about who you are in just a couple of lines, “keep in mind you’re addressing someone else,” Meyerhofer says. “Talk a little about the type of person you want to meet and what you would want to do with them.” Try something like: “A perfect date would be down to grab cheap seats to a baseball game, share hot dogs, and scream their heart out for the home team with me.”
When you’re looking at other people’s profiles, research shows it pays to be a little skeptical. “It’s not that people are being outright deceptive online,” says Dr. Stephanie Tong, assistant professor of communication studies at Wayne State University in Michigan who examined how online dating scenarios affect our perceptions (Social Computing and Social Media, 2016). “Overall, people tell little white lies.” Keep in mind you’re talking to a total stranger, so until you really get to know them, proceed with some skepticism.
Once you start chatting, try out these guidelines from the experts
1. Don’t over-share. “It’s not a confessional,” says Meyerhofer. Remember that this person is still a stranger, so don’t confide in them the way you would with your close friends, and stay away from sharing personal details, such as your home address or exactly where you’re standing right this second.
2. Find common ground. Focus on finding shared interests. Expressing similar attitudes about things—such as your shared obsession with finding the best tacos in town—can help you bond, according to the findings of a 2010 study that looked at interpersonal attraction among friends, published in the International Journal of Innovation, Management and Technology.
3. Stay positive. In your first few messages, stay away from negative topics or complaints, advises Spira. “Instead, talk about what you love.”
4. Ask questions. It might seem obvious, but when you ask follow-up questions, people are more likely to want to engage with you again, according to the findings of a 2010 study on conversation dynamics published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. “Always ask a question at the end of a quick three-sentence chat to keep the conversation moving,” suggests Spira. Just avoid making every sentence a question—you want to have a back-and-forth, not an interrogation.
5. Keep it PG. Sexting sometimes has a way of creeping into the world of online dating. If someone sends you a sexual message that makes you uncomfortable on a dating app, it’s a red flag, says Spira. In this scenario, you can un-match with them, block their number, or even report them via the app support center. For sexts that are solicited, things can get a little trickier. If you’re into sexting, remember that those pictures and messages can never really be deleted. “There’s nothing wrong in sending a [hot] photo, but if there’s nudity and the relationship doesn’t work out, you might find your photos and contact information on a revenge porn site,” says Spira. “My rule of thumb is don’t send anything that you wouldn’t want to be seen online or on the cover of your school paper.”
6. Get real about ghosting. Unfortunately, flaking on or ignoring someone you’ve been chatting with (also known as “ghosting”) has become a reality of online dating. “In a way, it’s a good, healthy reminder that you shouldn’t invest more meaning in an online connection than is appropriate,” Meyerhofer says. Rather than agonizing over that awesome match who suddenly went silent, the experts agree that it’s best to cut your losses. “Move on to meet someone who values you more than the ghoster did,” says Spira. To avoid being a ghost yourself when you’re not feeling a match, tell them you’ve had a great time chatting or that you enjoyed the date but just don’t think there’s a romantic connection. “It seems hurtful, but I really think most people appreciate honesty and transparency,” says Meyerhofer. “It’s okay to say goodbye and good luck.”
Taking things offline
“Sometimes it feels ‘safe’ behind our screens, but it’s important to interact in real time to really get to know people and forge strong relationships,” says Dr. Catherine Coccia, an assistant professor at Florida International University who has studied how online dating affects life satisfaction.
Attraction tends to be highly non-verbal, so the only way to tell if you and your match are really going to hit it off is to meet face-to-face.
How to prep for that in-person meeting
Before you go:
1. Do your homework. “Check your potential date’s social media accounts to see if any photos or activities make you uncomfortable,” advises Spira. If every photo shows them wasted or arm-in-arm with what looks like a significant other, you may want to take a pass.
2. Tell a friend. Always tell a friend where you are, your date’s name, and how long you expect to be out. In a worst-case scenario, someone will always know where you are and whom you’re with. Have that friend follow up if you don’t check in by a certain time.
While you’re there:
1. Keep it short and meet in public. The goal of your first meeting is simply to meet face-to-face and say hey, says Meyerhofer. Rather than dinner, where you might get stuck making awkward small talk for an hour, schedule something more casual for your first meeting to see if you hit it off. Make sure you’re meeting in a public place the first few times so you’re safer in case anything gets weird.
2. In fact, why not make it a coffee date? “I call the first date the Starbucks date,” says Meyerhofer. “Meet in a public place and don’t have alcohol involved.” Keeping it casual over coffee means you can easily split if something feels off or your date turns out to be a dud (those to-go cups can come in handy). When you have your first meeting over drinks, it may be easier for one drink to lead to another until your intentions to get back home for an early bedtime are derailed. Most importantly, you want to keep your judgment about a new person sharp, says Meyerhofer, so if you’re going to have a drink, limit yourself to one.
3. Go with a group. “Sometimes it can be nice to invite an online match to a group activity,” says Sprowl. “Then there’s a little less pressure.” Just be sure you’re both clear it’s a group thing before meeting up—no one likes walking into what they thought was going to be a one-on-one date only to find a dozen of your friends there. You might even suggest that you both bring a few people and check out trivia night at a local restaurant or the new student art show on campus.
After the date:
1. Refuse a ride. It might be polite of your date to offer you a ride home, but wait until you know them a little better before accepting, advises Spira. “If things go south, you won’t want them showing up on your doorstep.”
2. Trust your gut. Is a little voice in your head telling you there’s something unsettling about this person you’re meeting for the first time? Listen to it, and don’t be embarrassed to cut things short. “If you have a creepy vibe from somebody or something feels off, shut it down,” says Sprowl. If it helps, think of a pre-planned excuse to leave in case you want to get out early. For example, tell your date ahead of time that you have plans to meet up with a friend later and text them if you need them to swoop in “early” to meet you. In a pinch, head to the bathroom and say you just got a call from your roommate who needs your help ASAP. When all else fails, just leave. No matter what, listen to your gut and don’t be afraid to use an out.
Turning a swipe into something more
One of the biggest complaints about online dating is that it can seem superficial. To turn all that swiping into something more, follow these strategies:
1. Be upfront about what you want. People use dating apps for reasons other than finding a partner (e.g., just to hook up), or they might not have intentions of ever meeting in person, says Meyerhofer. To make an authentic connection, be upfront about what you’re looking for early on. “I met my current boyfriend on Tinder (who actually works at the same hospital as I do). Tinder let us explain what we were both looking for and connected us beyond our work lives,” says Chauncey B., a third-year student at Tarrant County College in Texas.
2. Don’t rule out non-romantic relationships. Not all authentic connections have to be romantic. “A dating website when I was living abroad gave me the opportunity to meet new friends,” says Junot C., a third-year graduate student at the University of New Brunswick. “It can definitely be for whatever purpose you intend to make it for,” says Jude K., a second-year graduate student at Nova Scotia Community College.
No matter how you feel about online dating, it’s good to put the phone away and get offline once in a while.
Research shows that students who use texting and social media messaging more often in their social interactions are actually less likely to be in a romantic relationship and less likely to report high life satisfaction, according to the findings of Dr. Coccia’s study involving 534 college students (Stress and Health, 2016). The students who chatted on the phone or in real life had higher life satisfaction scores.
“Online dating shouldn’t take the place of real-world interactions. It’s important to engage in relationships offline,” says Dr. Coccia. “We know that social support can be a protective factor against stress. So even if it’s playing basketball with [friends] or spending a night in, it’s important to take breaks from online dating and to engage in real-time social interactions.”
If you feel like you need a digital dating detox, experts say the best way to meet people IRL is simply to get out and do the things you enjoy. “The best way to meet people who will enjoy the things you do is to do them,” says Meyerhofer.
What that might look like
If you’d love a partner who surfs, join a surfing meet-up. If you want someone to discuss books with until 2 a.m., sign up for a book club. If you’re super attracted to people who plug into their communities, volunteer with a local group. “The more people develop their passions and start exploring what they love, the more they’re going to meet like-minded people naturally,” says Sprowl.
No matter how you meet someone, there’s no relationship “magic bullet,” cautions Dr. Tong. “Relationships take work—no matter if they begin offline or online.” Being genuine about who you are and what you’re looking for is the first step to becoming a dating master in the sea of swiping and IRL.
Students review popular dating apps
Coffee Meets Bagel
By Coffee Meets Bagel, Inc.
Reviewed by a second-year graduate student, University of Maryland
“We all live busy lives. With schoolwork, jobs, and outside responsibilities, dating is sometimes the last thing on our minds. However, Coffee Meets Bagel changes the dating game. The online dating app pairs you up with matches based on your location, likes, hobbies, and set preferences (height, ethnicity, interests). Many college students prefer using Tinder for ‘no strings attached’ dating scenarios. However, I prefer something less à la carte themed. The idea of getting to know someone online can be new to some. Coffee Meets Bagel does a good job of incorporating interests, personality traits, and likes into the user profiles. The idea behind Coffee Meets Bagel is to bring people together based on common interests. Daters can add more to their profile to help start off conversations, which may help build interest and eventually lead to a date.
Did this app find me a significant other? Sadly, no. However, after a few days of using it, I felt dating wasn’t so bad after all. I was able to have genuine dates with people I met online and even made a few new friends! This app gives a good break from the swipe-right or swipe-left routine.
Finding people to talk more about their interests and hobbies was a good, refreshing feeling. This application allowed me to meet different people and go on some of the best dates.
Sometimes having a time limit on the application doesn’t do the potential connection justice. We all have lives, and sometimes we get busy. The five-day window to strike up a conversation and ask someone out is too short of a time period.
By Tinder, Inc.
Reviewed by a first-year undergraduate student, Red Deer College, Alberta
“Using a simple interface to introduce users to one another, Tinder, the world’s most popular dating app, has made online dating mainstream. It allows singles of any orientation to find potential partners with a literal swipe of a finger. Based on a bio and a handful of photos, users may choose to ‘like’ a potential match’s profile by swiping to the right or skip over that person by swiping to the left. Communication is only allowed if both users ‘like’ each other—and then the rest is up to you!”
Whether you’re looking for a first date or a long-term relationship, Tinder is one of the most useful dating apps—especially since you’re only going to get messages from people you liked, the cream of the crop.
A lot of the fun comes from evolving your profile to suit your personality and desires. The cheekier, the better, generally speaking. It’s important to be yourself when creating your bio, but get creative, people! Only 1 in 10 profiles have a funny photo and list something quirky—you know, besides an interest in pumpkin spice.
Since Tinder only allows contact if both users like each other’s profiles, it keeps unwanted messages to a minimum (unlike other dating sites), and it lets you decide if you want to go on a date pretty quickly. I’ve yet to find a relationship from Tinder, but you know what they say: Keep on swipin’.
By Grindr LLC
Reviewed by a third-year graduate student, University of Memphis, Tennessee
“Grindr definitely seems to have the most local gay, queer, or bi-curious guys looking for a partner or a friend—at least, compared to the other gay chat apps I’ve used. You personalize your profile, and then filter out who you’re looking to meet by various factors such as age, “tribe,” and what types of men you’re looking for. There are also other filters and features available for paid members if you want to upgrade.”
The app is great for seeing who’s out there but has some major drawbacks that other gay chat apps don’t. For example, messages you view on one device don’t appear if you open the app on another device, which can make it hard to keep track of who you said what to, especially if you switch devices through the day (and who doesn’t these days?). Plus, there’s this awkward “tap” feature equivalent to a Facebook poke—someone can tap you to get your attention, and then it’s like, “Now what do I do?” Pressure!
Grindr is a really fun way to pass some time reading people’s profiles, checking out their pictures, and chatting with whoever catches your eye. Like most people on the app, I don’t take it too seriously. If you actually decide to meet (some people don’t have that intention), that’s one of the most exciting parts—so long as you meet up in a public place! #StaySafe
Effectiveness depends a lot on what you’re looking to get out of the app. Maybe you’ll meet “Mr. Right” (or “Mr. Right Now”), or maybe you won’t. It’s still a good way to learn about what you’re looking for in a partner or friend.
Brooke Sprowl, LCSW, individual and couples therapist, owner and director of My LA Therapy.
Catherine Coccia, PhD, RD, assistant professor of dietetics and nutrition at Florida International University.
Julie Spira, online dating expert and coach, based in Los Angeles.
Stephanie Tong, PhD, assistant professor of communication studies at Wayne State University in Michigan.
Will Meyerhofer, JD, LCSW, author and psychotherapist, based in New York City.
Batool, S., & Malik, N. I. (2010). Role of attitude familiarity and proximity in interpersonal attraction among friends. International Journal of Innovation, Management and Technology, 1(2).
Chappetta, K. C., & Barth, J. M. (2016). How gender role stereotypes affect attraction in an online dating scenario. Computers in Human Behavior. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2016.06.006
Chen, F. S., Minson, J. A., & Tormala, Z. L. (2010). Tell me more: The effects of expressed interest on receptiveness during dialog. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46(5), 850–853. doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2010.04.012
Coccia, C., & Darling, C. A. (2016). Having the time of their life: College student stress, dating and satisfaction with life. Stress and Health, 32(1), 28–35. doi: 10.1002/smi.2575
Smith, A. (2016, February 11). Fifteen percent of American adults have used online dating sites or mobile dating apps. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from https://www.pewinternet.org/2016/02/11/15-percent-of-american-adults-have-used-online-dating-sites-or-mobile-dating-apps/
Tong, S. T., Hancock, J. T., & Slatcher, R. B. (2016). The influence of technology on romantic relationships: Understanding online dating. Social Computing and Social Media, 162–173.