How safe are dating apps? The answer is that we don’t really know (sorry). We lack scientific data in this area – official statistics aren’t properly collected, reporting is low, and overall there are a lot of gaps. What we do know is that online dating does not come without risk, and sometimes the risk is greater than simply being ghosted. Sexualized violence, scams, and identity theft have all been affiliated with dating app use, and people have also been victims of physical violence (including murder) when meeting their match offline. Pew Research Center did find that half (53%) of the women they surveyed agreed that dating apps were an unsafe way to meet people. That being said, many sources also report that the majority of online daters have positive experiences. The jury is still out.
Many of us also want to know if dating apps pose a greater safety risk than “traditional dating”/dating before these apps. Again, we don’t know for sure…but not necessarily. Dating in general can be risky, and we should be cautious when meeting strangers anywhere. Dating app companies often argue that the interactions they facilitate are no different than the everyday interactions we have off of the apps, and it is up to users to take proper safety precautions as they would offline. We know this isn’t accurate, however, as the UK’s National Crime Agency found that reports of rape linked to online dating was partially a result of the behaviors and expectations fostered by an online environment. Regardless, given that dating apps are a multi-billion-dollar industry I personally think they should be obliged to invest some of their revenue into improving user safety. I said what I said.
Despite what we do and do not know, a ton of people are dating online and are going to continue to do so. We don’t need to avoid dating apps or be too scared to use them. We just need to ensure that our experiences are as safe as possible and that dating app companies are valuing our safety, too.
So how do we keep ourselves safer when dating online? The same list of safety tips is shared by most dating app platforms – I have compiled the 10 most-cited tips below, with a few added tricks. It never hurts to remind ourselves how we can be safer, and we really don’t have much more to work with…which leads me to my next point. What we can do to keep ourselves safe is the common narrative when it comes to online dating, when unfortunately, “what can dating apps do to keep us safe?” is too often disregarded. Too much onus and burden` is left on us, the user. Apps can never be fully responsible for the actions of all of their users – this is true. Shouldn’t they at least be responsible to ensure their platforms are as safe as possible, though? I would argue that the users do need to do better, but these apps most certainly do, too.
In Canada, other than providing safety guidelines and the option to report and block users, apps aren’t really doing very much to keep users safe. On some Canadian platforms you have the option to verify your account with a selfie, but this is not mandatory. Bumble Canada also has a “Private Detector” feature to help shield users from unwanted images. It works by using artificial intelligence to blur images that are shared in the chat, and it is up to the user to decide if they want to view the image. If you ask me, I think we need better armour.
To touch a little further on the reporting feature, it is commonly reported in the media that apps do a poor job of responding to user reports and users are often left unsatisfied with the outcome. In this interview, an investigative journalist discusses how dating app platforms do not have standardized protocols in place to handle user reports, especially across platforms (even though Match Group controls most of the popular dating app market, including Tinder, Hinge, Match and OkCupid). She further reveals that until 2016 OkCupid was keeping track of sexual assault complaints in a Google doc 🙃.
In the United States, additional safety features have been rolled out. Tinder US (but not the other 189 countries it operates in) has added a panic button that alerts law enforcement to provide emergency assistance in partnership with the safety app Noonlight; a “Does This Bother You?” feature, which automatically detects offensive messages and asks the user whether they’d like to report it; and a safety center with added tools and resources about how to keep safe while using the app. Although these features are an improvement, they are not enough. They still largely put the onus on the user (not the app), and they will not end the normalized abuse or sexualized violence that is currently being facilitated by dating apps.
Also, if you were thinking that at the very least sex offenders are kept off dating apps, well, you thought wrong. There’s only one app (Match US, which users pay to use) that checks its users against the sex offender registries in the United States. Meaning that there are definitely registered sex offenders on other dating app platforms…and an investigation by Columbia Journalism Investigations found just that. In Canada, only police agencies can access the sex offender registry, so third parties in Canada such as dating app companies are not even able to obtain this information. Canadian dating app users are out of luck all around (the ones worried about staying safe, anyway).
So here are some ways we can stay safe without much help from our “friends” (insert dating app platforms of your choice):
1. Protect your personal information. This goes for your profile, when you’re chatting online, and when you are on dates. Hold off on disclosing your full name, home address, or where you work. In your profile, you can also be vague about your occupation instead of listing the specific company or organization that you work for (if you are employed these days). Be cautious about revealing any personal information.
2. Do your research and fact check your matches. It has been found by multiple sources that over 50% of people exaggerate or lie on their dating profiles, so Google them, look for social media accounts (check that they have same photos as their dating profile and confirm their job with LinkedIn), and you can ask them to verify their profile (if they haven’t activated that feature already). Before taking the next step to set up a phone/video call or meet in person, make sure you trust the person and not just the profile. If you live in the US and want to be really sure, you can even hire a dating detective to do it for you.
3. Stay on the app. It gives you a bit of extra protection than other methods of communication where you need to exchange your phone number or other personal information. Don’t leave the app for messaging, calling or meeting in person before you are confident of the person’s identity. If you are feeling rushed or pressured to do otherwise, it is a red flag. Also be sure you are using trusted and well-reviewed dating apps (there are thousands to choose from and they are not all made equal).
4. To help us continue dating through coronavirus, many dating apps added video call features. Consider having your first date over video chat before meeting in public. If you do so on the app you won’t need to exchange a phone number or email.
5. If you do meet offline, have your first several dates in a public place and keep it there. Going back to someone’s home or somewhere more private is a safer move after three-to-five dates (however, as always, no guarantees so still keep some safety tips front of mind). You can also choose to meet in a group.
6. Have your own means of transportation to and from the first few in-person dates so you never feel trapped or have to rely on your date to get home if you are ready to leave.
7. Always tell a few people where you are going and who you are meeting. You can also use your phone to share your location with family and friends so they can track where you are. This article describes how to turn on location sharing through Google Maps, Facebook Messenger and iMessage. There are also several location sharing apps you can download for free.
8. Always keep an eye on your drink and your purse. Make sure your drink comes straight from a bartender or server and don’t leave your drink or your purse unattended when you go to the washroom. Date rape substances are mostly odorless, colourless and tasteless, and your purse often has personal identification in it with your name, address, and credit cards/banking information.
9. Don’t be afraid to ask a server or bartender for help if you are feeling uncomfortable. Many people in the service industry are well versed in identifying creeps and assessing the safety of customers. Some bars even have secret menu items that you can order if you need help – often restaurants with these secret menu items will post them in their women’s washrooms.
10. If you experience violence or abuse of any form on a date, it is strongly encouraged that you report it to both the dating app platform and to the police. You should also request that the police contact the dating app platform.
Stay safe and be kind to each other online!