Tinder Dating Among Teens: When Swipe-Right Culture Goes to High School
The massively popular dating app claims to block underage users. The only workaround? Lying. And everyone is doing it.
Jenna created a Tinder profile when she was 17. Using the dating app’s toggling age form, she chose “18,” the youngest available option, and wrote “actually 17” on her profile. This was common practice at the New Jersey high school where she was a senior and her best way into a swipe-right culture that promised access to intimacy and acceptance. Jenna was a teenager. She had never been kissed. She wasn’t very popular. This was a no-brainer.
“Why did I do it? So… my friends had boyfriends. And I didn’t. I mean, no one at my school seems like worth it. And it’s like, an easier way to find other people in the area. I was also considering hooking up with people,” says Jenna, who is now 19. “Was it useful? That’s debatable.”
Jenna joined Tinder in 2016, shortly after the company announced that the platform would be excluding the 13- to 17-year-olds it had previously welcomed. Though Tinder co-founder Justin Mateen had defended providing young people with access, saying it was a way to make friends, the company caved to public pressure. It was clear, after all, that teens weren’t just using Tinder to find friends. For many, it had become a place to find random hookups and validation. For others, it had become a safe place to experiment with their sexuality. Perhaps for most, it offered a rough introduction into the adult sexual economy.
“I got close to hooking up with one person, and then I backed out real hardcore,” recalls Jenna. ”He wanted to get a hotel. I was like, ‘My guy, I don’t have money, I can’t pay for a hotel.’”
I downloaded Tinder in April of 2019 to search for underage users on the platform for this story (I’ve changed the names of the users I interview for the sake of their privacy). The process of downloading the dating app took me less than a minute. Tinder didn’t ask for my age or require me to link to my Facebook or other existing social media accounts. I just had to verify my email address. For my first profile, I used an actual photo of myself as well as my real name and actual age. Thinking I might find more under-18s if I posed as an 18-year-old, I deleted my account and made a new one with the same picture, same name, and a different email in the same span of time. I also pressed Tinder on their age verification standards, but they did not respond to requests for comment. (The app allows users to report on people not using it properly, but that seems to be the extent of the monitoring.)
Launched in 2012, Tinder has long been the most popular dating app in the world. Used in about 200 countries, it boasts 10 million active daily users and 50 million total users. At the time Tinder announced new age restrictions, three percent of its daily user base was underage, amounting to some 1.5 million minors. But many didn’t leave. They pretended to be 18 and stuck around for the thrill of it. Scrolling through the app, dozens of profiles surface of users who are ostensibly 20 with “actually 18” written in their profiles, which suggests these users signed up at 16 and aged up with the app rather than creating new profiles. For better and mostly worse, the teens are still there.
How many underage kids are on Tinder? It’s impossible to say, but according to research by Monica Anderson at the PEW Research Center, 95 percent of teenagers have a smartphone. More than a few is a safe guess.
Dr. Gail Dines, President and CEO of Culture Reframed and Professor Emerita of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Wheelock College, argues that teens retaining access to Tinder exacerbates a major cultural issue. Dines studies the way that the easy and ubiquitous access to pornography on the Internet affects romantic dating culture and argues that Tinder and other such dating apps have changed the teenage years by providing teens with a reason to obsess over their sexual presentation.
“What we’ve done is we’ve compressed their childhood,” says Dines. “Now, teens are meant to be sexual at a much earlier age, because those are the messages that are coming at them all the time. Especially for girls.”
The key message coming at them, Dines said, is that they’re either “fuckable” or invisible. She explains that this incentivizes teenagers to try to make themselves “fuckable in order to be visible” and that this dynamic effects children of younger and younger ages. Young girls have long been sexualized. Now, they are self-sexualizing to an increasing degree. And Tinder gives them a platform on which to practice being objectified and objectifying each other in lieu of developing strong social bonds.
“You cannot replace social media with actually being in a group,” Dines says. “The things you learn from being in a group, in real time, are not replaceable with social media. How to act, how to get cues from people, what works and doesn’t work for you — all of those things.”
Adolescence, Dines adds, is a time for experimentation on every level. It’s a big world out there and teenagers are trying to locate themselves in it. By moving away from the physical, teens are missing out on a very crucial experience.
Terry downloaded Tinder when she was 17 and it was legal to be on the platform. She was looking to have “random, meaningless sex” after a bad breakup. Like the others, Terry, who is now 22, says that all of her friends were on the app. Unlike them, she listed her real age and ultimately regretted it. Before she abandoned the apps, she had run-ins with men who lied about their age or who wanted to pick her up and take her to an undisclosed location.
“I had horrible experiences,” she says. “I had a lot of guys that wanted to like, pick me up, and meet me in a place that was secluded, and didn’t understand why that was weird or just expected sex right off the bat.”
Terry’s most concerning experiences involved older guys who said they were 25 or 26 and listed a different age in their bio. “Like, why don’t you just put your real age?” she says. “It’s really weird. There are some creeps on there.”
Although there’s no public statistic on fake Tinder profiles, avoiding Tinder scams and spotting fake people on the app is fundamental to the experience of using it. Adults know this. Teens don’t. Many see a fun app for meeting people or hooking up. And it’s easy to feel concerned about these minors posing as legal adults to get on a platform that makes it so easy to create a profile — real or fake.
Amanda Rose, a 38-year-old mom and professional matchmaker from New York, has two teenage boys, 15 and 17, and concerns about the way that social media and tech has changed dating. To her knowledge, her kids haven’t dated anyone they met online and they don’t use Tinder (she has the passwords to all of her kids’ phones and social media accounts.) But she’s also had many talks with them about the problem with tech and her concerns.
“We’ve had the talk that the person they are talking to might be posting pictures that are not really them,” she says. “It could be someone fake. You have to be really careful and mindful about who you interact with online.”
Amanda’s also concerned about how much teenagers — and the adult clients with whom she works — resort to the digital in order to repair their relationships or remain connected to the world.
“I’ve noticed, even with my clients, that people go to texting. They don’t pick up the phone and call someone. I talk to my kids about that: about how important it is to actually, pick up the phone and not hide behind a phone or a computer screen,” she says. “Because that’s where you build relationships.”
If you just stay behind text messages, Amanda says, you’re not going to build stronger relationships. Even when her oldest son talks about issues with his girlfriend, she tells him: “Don’t text her. You need to step outside if you don’t want anyone to hear the conversation and pick up the phone and call her.”
Still, certain teenagers who ventured onto Tinder have positive stories. Katie, who asked to be referred to by her first name only for privacy, went to an all-girls Catholic school and had a conservative family. She used the app as a way to figure out her sexual identity and credits it for helping her navigate a new and burgeoning sense of self in a way that didn’t leave her open to hostile teenagers, school staff, or disapproving family members.
“I was not out. I was very, very in the closet,” she says. “It was one of my first ever moments of letting myself kind of even acknowledge that I was bisexual. It felt very safe and private.”
On Tinder, Katie says she saw women from her high school looking for other women. Seeing this helped her feel less alone.
“I was 16 and had no idea that they felt that way,” she says. “They didn’t know I felt that way.”
Katie downloaded Tinder at a volleyball tournament. She was with a bunch of friends. They were all women and all straight.
“I was dealing with having queer feelings and not having anyone to talk to about it. I didn’t feel like I could actually talk to anybody, even my close friends about it at that point. So, I kind of used it more to just figure out what being gay is like, I guess.”
Her experience was freeing. “It didn’t feel threatening to flirt with women, and just figure myself out in a way that involved different people without having to feel like I exposed myself to people who would be unfriendly toward me,” she says.
Katie’s story is both unique and not unique. The trend of queer people using dating apps to enter relationships is well-known. Twice as many LGBTQ+ singles use dating apps than heterosexual people. About half of LGBTQ+ singles have dated someone they met online; 70 percent of queer relationships have begun online. That Katie got on the app when she was 16 is maybe not typical, but she found her first girlfriend on the app, and within a few years, came out to her family. Being able to safely explore her bisexuality in an otherwise hostile environment without coming out publicly until she was ready, Katie says, was “lifesaving.”
To find love and acceptance, one must put themselves out there. For teenagers, those whose lives are basically based around understanding and seeking acceptance, this can be an especially daunting prospect — especially so in an age when digital communication is the norm. So why not jump on Tinder, which requires one-minute of setup to help them sit on the edge of — or dive directly into — the dating pool?
“There’s that whole thing about not looking like you’re trying, right? Tinder is the lowest effort dating platform, in my opinion. Which also makes it harder to meet people,” says Jenna. “But it doesn’t look like you’re trying hard. All of the other ones don’t seem like that.”
Still, while stories like Jenna’s and Katie’s highlight how the app can provide a useful outlet of self-acceptance, neither young woman used the platform as intended. As Tinder seems to suggest by it’s tagline, “Single is a terrible thing to waste,” the app is for those looking for sex. Fostering connections may be more bug than feature. It’s not reassuring that the best stories about teens using the platform tend to emerge from edge-case scenarios, not from the typical function of the app, which is designed as a sexual outlet, but may also condition its user to accepting certain types of sexual experiences.
“You don’t want industry to be the decider of teen sexuality,” says Dines. “Why would you leave it to a profit-based industry?”
That’s a profound question and not one teens are likely to dwell on. Teens will continue to experiment because, well, that’s what teens do. And if they don’t receive guidance from adults in their lives, their early experiences on platforms like Tinder will shape their approach to adult relationships going forward. More than anything, that may be the hazard teens face on Tinder: the morphing of their own expectations.
“You don’t want to leave it to the [profiteers],” says Dines. “We want more for our kids than that, no matter their sexuality.”
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