I admit that I started writing this story with some hesitation. It is illegal for people under the age of 18 to use dating apps, and many students are embarrassed to publicly share such an intimate part of their lives. For those reasons, I chose to keep my interviewees — all of whom are seniors — anonymous. All names in this story have been changed, and the resemblance of any pseudonym to the name of any Urban student is completely coincidental.
“While we’ve been talking, I’ve been swiping,” said Louis, age 17, a senior who meets people from Tinder once or twice a week. Compared to the endless stream of profiles to be swiped through on Tinder, there’s no way my questions could compete for his attention.
Tinder, the most popular of the dating apps used by teenagers, has become widespread in the Urban community in recent years and offers an alternative to meeting people in person. While the premise of the app is simple — see someone’s profile, swipe left to dislike, swipe right to like… if you both swipe right, it’s a match! — the experiences of Urban students on Tinder are often much more complex.
For Amber, age 17, who was on Tinder for several months, “it started as a joke.” “It was a little addicting,” though, she said. “I got this rush whenever I matched with someone. There was something about it that you don’t really get in real life.”
Kevin, who is also 17, started using Tinder for similar reasons. “I originally just thought it would be an interesting thing to do that had no strings attached,” he said. Over time, though, his engagement with the app has changed. “What’s drawn me more to using Tinder,” he said, “is that being gay at Urban — especially being a boy who’s gay — is difficult.” Tinder has offered him a connection with other gay teenagers. “There are a lot of high school students who are on these apps, and connecting with people who may have a similar situation at their school has been the most productive part of my use,” he said.
Tinder can also simply offer people more options. “In a school like Urban, which is relatively small, opening up the pool [can be appealing],” said Urban Health Teacher Shafia Zaloom.
The app can be particularly attractive to people for whom hookup culture at Urban is unrewarding. For Sonia, who is now 18 but has been on Tinder since she was a sophomore, “it’s a little bit of a coping mechanism because I feel disconnected from Urban hookup culture,” she said.
For Zaloom, Tinder, more than anything, is “a way to get away from the social dynamics of a high school culture where people feel judged for different aspects of their sexuality,” she said. It can also give students “a sense of anonymity and control.”
On Tinder, people are greeted with a stream of profiles, and mutual attraction can instantly create a match. “It’s pure validation. It’s a self-esteem boost,” Louis said. “It feels kind of like a video game, honestly. It’s just easy.”
Gretchen, age 18, a senior girl who used Tinder for a few months, agreed. “A lot of guys [on Tinder] — a lot of people, actually, not just guys — call me pretty, which is kind of cool,” she said. At the same time, “the validation means less,” she said. “It’s just how people start conversations.”
While validation from Tinder can be exciting for Sonia, the app also has the power to lower her self-esteem. “I’ll go through dry spells of not talking to anyone or matching with anyone, and it makes me feel sh***y about myself,” she said.
The endless possibility of matches on Tinder has drawbacks, according to Zaloom. “The constant stream reinforces how you assess attraction and how you engage in potential connection in a way that’s very objectified and based on superficial characteristics and qualities,” she said.
The constant stream — otherwise known as “infinite scrolling,” a technique popularized by Instagram — is a key component of many social media platforms. For Zaloom, there’s nothing surprising about teenagers engaging with sexuality in a social media-like context. “Being a digital native generation, digital devices and electronics are something that are super normalized. So why wouldn’t you do it with dating too?” she said.
For Sonia, “it’s so much easier to talk to someone over text or Snapchat or Tinder than it is to get coffee with them or sit face-to-face. You have the protection of not being right in front of them,” she said. “It’s kind of scary to imagine asking someone out on the street, but there’s not that same question of if it’s worth it on a dating app. It’s just the way you’re going to move your thumb and then see what happens.”
Tinder — and the security of being behind a screen — allows Beth, age 17, who’s been on and off Tinder for a few months, to craft a different and more confident version of herself. “On Tinder, I’m more of a fun person,” she said. “I’m less shy, in a way.”
Louis agreed. “I feel like I come across better online,” he said. “When I meet people in real life, my weird side can come out.”
But for those who do want to share their full personalities, Tinder can be constraining. “I try to represent myself [on Tinder,] but obviously it’s not perfectly representative of who I am,” Gretchen said. “I can’t convey my personality in my bio or in my photos.”
All the students with whom I spoke described a regular process of conversation on Tinder once a match is made. One person (usually the guy in a heterosexual situation) will send a message, often making a joke. Since the process of matching makes it clear that there’s some mutual attraction, “there’s permission to be more forward,” Amber said. If a conversation goes well, people will often exchange Snapchats and move the conversation away from Tinder. Going to Snapchat “feels like you’re more securely connected,” Gretchen said. “You’ve gotten past first contact, and you’re on the next step.”
But Zaloom has doubts as to whether Tinder can build meaningful connections between people in the same way as time spent together. “Authentic trust is built through shared experiences, and it has to be built over time,” she said. “You can’t do that authentically through a digital device.”
Some of the students with whom I spoke have primarily kept their conversations online, while others have met up — and hooked up — in person. “It’s pretty nerve-racking, but I have hit it off with a couple people,” Amber said. “You have to have a certain level of maturity, where you know when to exit a situation where you feel uncomfortable. You don’t owe anyone your time or your body. As long as you know that, you can be on Tinder, in my opinion,” she said.
For others, however, Tinder use has remained exclusively online. Sonia said her relationship is “with the app itself” rather than with the people she messages. “It’s not like I’ve ever made meaningful relationships,” she said.
But for some, Tinder has paved the way for lasting relationships. Louis and Beth are both currently in relationships with people they met through Tinder.
Beth, however, hasn’t told her parents she met her boyfriend on Tinder — and doesn’t plan to. “I know it’s not the best thing to lie about,” she said. “He’s not a sketchy person, but my parents would tell me it was a bad decision. But he’s a really good person, and how else would I have met him?”
While Tinder can offer the opportunity to meet new people, interacting with strangers online doesn’t instantly lend itself to trust. “I’m immediately distrustful of people online, especially men,” Gretchen said.
For others, however, Tinder has soothed fears around online interaction. “I think it’s nice to know that most people are very normal,” Kevin said. “The majority of the people are in similar circumstances to me and don’t have malintent in any way.”
Zaloom cautioned students to be careful online, where it can be easy for people to “catfish” and create misleading identities. “There’s a false sense of security that I think a lot of young people have when navigating cyberspace,” she said. “They don’t treat it the same as their personal space.”
It is, of course, illegal for minors to be on Tinder. Some of the students with whom I spoke were under 18 when they made their accounts. In addition to lying about their age in order to create an account, some continued to lie to the people with whom they were messaging and meeting up. “I did lie and say I was 18 because it was easier,” Amber said. “I know it’s bad to lie, but at the time I just thought of it as a white lie that was harmless.”
After a while, Amber didn’t want to keep lying about her age. “I didn’t want to deceive anyone,” she said. “But at the time I thought of it as a harmless thing, because at the end of the day we were two teenagers who got along.”
While it is technically illegal, Zaloom believes that there would be no severe punishments for minors who are on Tinder. “I think your account just gets shut down,” she said.
Tinder is often taboo not just because it’s illegal, but because it can be simply embarrassing. “I have my notifications turned off,” Sonia said. I don’t want “to be at school or at home and someone to see that I got a Tinder message.”
Despite the embarrassment, Sonia has been on Tinder for a few years and makes new accounts to recreate the app’s novelty when it fades. “I’ve deleted Tinder and redownloaded my account,” she said. “Sometimes I’ve matched with every hot person I want to match with in San Francisco, so I redo it.”
Kevin remains on Tinder as well. But “because of my recognition of how superficial it is — based on a few pictures and maybe a few words and your name — I put very little personal stake into it,” he said.
Gretchen has gone off of Tinder because she’s interested in a girl she knows through a friend. She’s not sure if she would go back. “It would take a lot for me to date someone who I met online,” she said. “I feel like I’d want there to be some kind of connection already.”
Amber deleted Tinder when the feelings of validation she received morphed into something else: disgust. “What once was fun, flirty, and innocent turned into what I felt was a bunch of horny gross men who were just looking to use my body,” she said. Since deleting the app, she hasn’t gone back. “I don’t think I need it in my life, and I haven’t thought about joining it again despite several of my friends being on it,” she said. “I’ve been down that road, and the novelty has faded.”
At the same time, the wide range of people on Tinder “has made me more aware of the extent of the spectrum of single people,” Amber said. Even when there’s nobody at Urban, “I know there’s always someone out there.”