Online Dating Is Dangerous, Says Author and Journalist Nancy Jo Sales — And Here’s Why

dating app dangers

Illustration by Katie Couric Media

She says Big Dating is just as addictive as Big Tech.

When you think of Big Tech and the major technology companies, like Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft, that have excessive influence, you probably don’t think of online dating. But according to author and journalist Nancy Jo Sales, you should. Says Sales, popular dating apps have a huge influence on the way we operate, mostly because of their addictive nature — she calls the industry Big Dating. And she believes these apps’ hold on our culture isn’t just a coincidence. 

Her new book, Nothing Personal: My Secret Life in the Dating App Inferno, explores the dangers of online dating apps as they become more normalized as a part of our lives. Sales explains that they were designed to be addictive and more often than not, aren’t leading to lasting connections: According to 2019 research from the Pew Research Center, only 12 percent of Americans have found committed relationships or marriages through these platforms. And yet, with an estimated 40 million U.S. adults online dating, the popularity of these apps only continues to grow, even during a global pandemic. Meanwhile, Sales argues, “the experience of using these things is terrible.”

We spoke to Sales about the power behind the business of dating and what users need to know about how they work. 

KCM: Can you define “Big Dating” for our readers?

Well, Big Dating is the collection of companies that have platforms where they introduce people for dates — everything from Hinge to Tinder. I called it Big Dating, like Big Pharma in the sense that it’s an industry that purports to be providing a service for people, but is hurting them instead. I think Big Dating isn’t interested in helping you find love and marriage and relationships and whatnot, as they promised in their marketing. What they’re really interested in is having you use their platforms and apps. It’s a bad-faith proposition, because their entire business model is based on usage. You’re supposed to use the app more and more. They want you to keep scrolling.

Dating apps are an ad-tech industry, which means that they sell your data. They were really cagey about that for a long time but they absolutely are sharing your data, which was made public in 2020. And when it comes to dating apps, your data is really personal, more so even than what you do on Amazon or Facebook, because you’re talking about your sexual preferences. OkCupid, for example, has questions about which positions you like.

But some people have success on the apps, right? I met my husband on Hinge. What do you say to people who push back with that argument?

I know there’s a percentage of people — a minority percentage but still — who do find long-term love or some kind of committed relationship on apps. There’s not a lot of data on this, because the dating companies don’t like to release that data. I have a feeling that they don’t release that info because it’s not flattering to their bottom line. Pew Research Center has data that says 12 percent of Americans overall, which is low, and that 39 percent of regular dating app users have found marriage or committed relationships. Those aren’t good odds.

What was the most disturbing thing you discovered in your research?

The most insidious thing is that they’re trying to get you addicted. And that’s something that people are so unaware of, because you don’t feel how addicted you are. You’re like the frog in the pot — you don’t feel the water getting hotter and hotter. You’ll be craving the dopamine rush and the validation of talking to people and having them tell you that you’re hot. 

Are dating apps worse for men or women, or the same?

It’s terrible for women, and it causes dysfunction for women and men. But yes, the numbers of women on these apps who get dick pics, and get harassed, or get negged — or asked for nudes — is staggering. I mean, the whole experience is so foul for a lot of people.

That’s not to mention the racism: We’re in a moment where we’re trying to deal with racism in this country, and yet people can still go on a dating app and say horrible, racist things on their profiles, and nobody kicks them off. There’s transphobia, too. My critique of Big Dating is really a critique of these companies and the terrible damage they’re doing — not just to individuals, by failing to protect them from all of this, but to society.

My argument is that all of this awful behavior on dating apps exacerbates serious problems in our culture at large, like misogyny, racism, and transphobia. Plus, I think that the combination of dating apps, pornography, and the objectification that men learn through swiping is ruining guys. Misogyny wasn’t invented by dating apps, but it was weaponized by them.

In your opinion, is there anything these companies can to do fix these problems?

There are two things they need to do as first steps: They need to vet people’s backgrounds, and they need to have age checks. There shouldn’t be people on these apps who have rape charges, or domestic violence charges, or are pedophiles. But dating app companies cannot get sued because of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. So they’re not ever going to kick people off. There are studies in my book that even prove these apps create opportunities for sexual violence. 

The umbrella company of scores of these apps, including Tinder and Hinge, is Match. Their name references matching and matchmakers, and yet they don’t do any of the vetting a matchmaker would!

Dating apps should also have age checks because it’s so easy for any child, and I do mean child — recently an 11-year-old girl got raped by a 26-year-old man she met online — to make fake profiles to go talk to people on these apps. Society sexualizes girls. There have got to be checks.