A place to find love or a 'Saturday night shag'? The rise and fall of dating apps and how they are changing relationships

This was one of Newshub's top stories of 2023. It was originally published on March 19. 

Laura stopped using dating apps after a man she had been seeing for three months told her he had "forgotten" he was in another relationship. 

She's just one of many young New Zealanders who are less than enamoured with modern dating and in particular dating apps. 

Laura (not her real name) started using dating apps in 2017 and initially enjoyed the experience. 

"When I downloaded [Tinder], it served as an ego booster and I absolutely loved the attention I was getting," she told Newshub. 

But the longer she used them, the worse things got. 

One of her worst experiences was when a man she had been seeing for three months revealed he actually had a long-distance partner. 

"He called me to say he had forgotten him and his ex didn’t break up and they were doing long distance," she said. 

She said, in hindsight, there were several red flags before that which she chose to ignore. 

One of which was him having his ex-girlfriend as his lock screen image and flying off the handle when Laura didn't reply to a message quickly enough. 

"One night he messaged me and asked me to go out for dinner but I missed the message because my flatmate had broken her foot. 

"He sent me a message along the lines of, 'Clearly you don’t want to go on a date with me, you could just tell me instead of ignoring me'. At first I was like to myself, 'Are you actually serious? This guy has to be joking'.

"But I love free food and people taking me places so we ended up rescheduling the date. I should’ve realised how angry he got by me not replying was a red flag but I am clearly colourblind."

It was the final nail in the coffin. She'd had enough of dating apps.  But a month later, Laura was back on Tinder with boredom and the desire to meet someone drawing her back in. 

What followed was months of bad dates and hookups which culminated in a man telling her she was bad in bed but he was willing to try again anyway. 

Eventually, Laura deleted her dating apps for good. But she said it took her longer than it should have - and she's not alone. 

Tinder was released more than a decade ago and since then many other apps have popped up all promising to revolutionise dating.

But 10 years on and people aren't exactly the biggest fans of them. It's almost impossible to discuss dating apps without endless horror stories of catfishing, ghosting, misogyny and most peoples' general hatred of them. 

The hatred is so real it's prompted numerous articles including a recent Buzzfeed one titled: 21 Wild Tinder Interactions That Show You How Much Nonsense You Have To Sift Through On Dating Apps

And it's not just anecdotal evidence that shows people aren't exactly enamoured with online dating. A recent survey of 4000 adults who date online found roughly 56 percent view dating apps as either somewhat or very negative. 

Another survey by Pew Research Center found a whopping 88 percent of respondents were disappointed by what they've seen on dating apps. 

So if everyone hates dating apps so much, why do they keep using them? 

Sex and relationship therapist Serafin Upton said there are multiple reasons but one of the big ones is people aren't sure how to meet people without them. 

Upton told Newshub the rise in dating apps has come with several unintended consequences, one of which is people often now feel awkward or unsure about asking people out in real life. 

Another reason people are drawn to online dating is because it takes less effort than meeting people "in the wild". 

"With the advent of the internet, we can do a million things and we are expected to do a million things in a day and people are more exhausted than they've ever been in the history of humanity," Upton said 

"If you could choose to join a sports team to potentially meet a partner or go online when you've got very limited amounts of time and energy, you're going to choose the thing that is easiest." 

This convenience is made even more addictive by the dopamine hit you get when scrolling through dating apps. 

Dopamine is a chemical released in the brain that makes you feel good. It allows people to feel pleasure, satisfaction and motivation and is released when doing things like eating nice food and having sex. 

But Upton said the simple act of thinking you might find someone you like on a dating app is also enough to release dopamine, making the user feel good even if they haven't interacted with anyone at all. 

"When you're scrolling on different faces, every time you do that, you get a dopamine hit because the dopamine doesn't come from finding someone you think is really hot, it comes from the anticipation you might." 

The lack of in-person interaction can also be very attractive for shy or introverted people - but online dating isn't necessarily a better choice. 

"If you are shy and you lack social skills or you lack social confidence, then online dating is going to be really difficult because I would argue you need more social skills and more confidence. It actually requires more skills. It's an illusion of security," she said. 

And while it might take more effort, Upton said there are major benefits to meeting people in real life that cannot be replicated online. 

"Humans are designed to hunt for a mate in the wild. There's something profoundly different from seeing someone on a screen and interacting by text," she said. 

"You cannot compare that to watching someone interact with the bartender or interact with their friends, how their body moves… Are they polite? Are they respectful? Are they funny?" 

What impacts are dating apps having on our relationships? 

Victoria University of Wellington senior lecturer in health psychology Dr Ally Gibson has been researching online dating, specifically during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr Gibson said her research has revealed just how much of an impact online dating is having on modern relationships.  

One of the most profound examples she noticed was the false sense of intimacy dating apps could create between strangers. 

Dating apps can almost act as a religious confessional, she said, because it's a private chat where people feel they have nothing to lose. 

Because most people are speaking with strangers, who don't have any connection to their daily lives, they are more likely to share personal and intimate information. 

"You open up because it's a private space and it's almost confessional. You're sharing all this personal information, which I think is what creates that sense of intimacy," Gibson said. 

This confessional dynamic can often lead to a false sense of intimacy between people that doesn't carry over into real life - meaning the first in-person date is often a disappointment. 

"Then you meet in person and, of course, there are all these different dynamics at play, like physically being attracted to each other or not attracted to each other, how someone dresses or their facial expressions, the way you talk, the language you use," she added. 

This is something Laura has experienced first-hand. She said one of the biggest drawbacks to online dating is it can give false impressions. 

"I have always found when I meet up with men from Tinder or Bumble, their chat online is great. But when you meet up to talk in person, I found their chat drier than the Sahara. I get that meeting up in person is scary but surely tell a joke or something to ease the tension," she said. 

It was also one of the reasons participants in Dr Gibson's study said online dating could actually be more work. People reported spending a lot of time talking online but it wasn't making much of a difference in real life. Which meant people felt they were doing twice the work for the same result. 

Another way dating apps impact relationships is by giving people a false idea of how many options they have. 

According to Upton, dating apps can make it seem like there is an endless sea of available people. 

"There's this perception that [the options] go on forever, you can just keep searching. You just keep expanding the parameters and depending on your age group, there might be thousands of options. 

"It gives us the sense, and it lulls us into a false sense of security, that there are more options available to us than there actually are," she said.

This can mean people are less likely to give people a second chance if their first date is slightly awkward. And people are often less inclined to put work into relationships in the early stages, she said. 

But one thing that hasn't changed, according to Upton, is when people are in relationships they still deeply value them and put work in. 

Despite giving them up, Laura said overall she thinks dating apps can be successful - but only if people are really honest with themselves and each other. 

"If you’re talking to someone and you see them as a potential life partner but they just see you as a Saturday night shag, you’re never going to be happy with that person. You need to be open and honest with both the people you match and chat with and yourself." 

For her though, they were a good distraction and made for some funny stories. 

And while in general, she prefers meeting people in real life - that isn't without its challenges either. 

"There are some real creeps out in bars and nightclubs. [But] at least you can maybe get a free drink out of it or know they aren’t catfishing you. 

"I think there is hope for people to meet on dating apps and to build a relationship with someone you have met online but unfortunately, you’re probably going to have to go through a fair amount of frogs before you find your happily ever after."