Uses and Perceptions of Dating Apps Among College Students

Abstract: The changing nature of the way college students date has long been an intriguing topic, subject to much attention in popular culture and beyond. The recent emergence of online dating apps, Tinder being the most popular, has dramatically changed the landscape of how college students meet and date. Despite its popularity among college students, little research has actually been done about the purposes as to why students use dating apps, or on the greater perceptions of dating app usage among college students. This research offers a glimpse into the minds of a selection of college students as to why they chose to use dating apps or not, their changing perceptions of dating apps, and their motivations behind using these apps. The research showed that most college students opinions towards online dating have changed since beginning college; identifying the primary reason being its widespread use and acceptance. Further, most thought that finding a relationship through a dating app had an effect on the nature of the relationship for a variety of reasons, but most calling it unnatural. Beyond this, the study found that despite the perception that dating apps were mostly used for hooking up, the top reasons were actually for online entertainment, boosting self-confidence, and finding casual dates.

Introduction: Online dating apps have been gaining popularity with college students for a number of years now. Though a variety of apps exist, Tinder is by far the most popular. Tinder is an online mobile dating app that allows users to create a profile linked to their Facebook accounts. These profiles include a selection of photographs as well as a brief “bio” in which users can enter whichever text information they would like about themselves, such as their height, school, or other general information. Users swipe through profiles of others in a nearby vicinity, swiping right if they like them, or left if they do not. If both users swipe right, then a match is created and the two are able to initiate a chat within the app. Although dating apps vary slightly by type, the most popular ones such as Bumble work in a similar fashion.

The growth in popularity of dating apps raises key questions about college students use of these apps: why do they choose to use these apps, how their perceptions of dating app usage have changed since beginning college, and what their opinions are of how dating apps influence real life meetings and relationships. This research sets out to explore how and why college students use dating apps by exploring their individual relationships and experiences with the services and getting at the honest, underlying purposes for the use of apps.

Research Questions: This research set out to explore and answer a few key questions about the uses, gratifications, and perceptions of online dating apps among college students. The key research questions included:

• RQ 1: Why do college students use dating apps?

The most obvious and basic assumption many people make about dating app usage is that it is purely used for purely sexual encounters. Tinder is often viewed as a superficial place where college students try to meet to hookup, but this is a misconception and over simplification. What do college students actually use these apps for?

• RQ 2: How have perceptions about dating apps and online dating changed for students?

Online dating has come a long way from the days when “E-Harmony” and “Match.com” commercials ruled the airwaves. How and why have college students chosen to use online dating services, which were once thought to be a place for an older and unsophisticated crowd?

• RQ 3: Does finding a relationship through an app have an impact?

Developers of online applications advertise the goal as way for people to connect with one another and ultimately, to date. This raises the question as to whether successful long-term relationships can be formed through apps like Tinder and the impact that an online meeting has in real life.

Methodology: In order to address the questions above an online survey was conducted of both users and non-users of online dating apps in the fall of 2016 over the span of three days. The goal of this was to find out the purposes of use and non-use as well as to gage the perceptions of dating apps by non-users. The survey was sent directly via email to a group of college students and was also then posted to Facebook where the respondents were of similar demographics. This was done to ensure a broad range of answers from different backgrounds and experiences. A total of 36 respondents were surveyed. Most those who responded were college students who attend an elite New England university and two were from elite Midwest schools. Out of those surveyed, 13 were male and 23 were female. Three male respondents identified as homosexual and one as bi-sexual. Out of the sample, 3 respondents identified as Hispanic, 4 as Asian, and 29 as Caucasian. Nineteen identified as having used currently or in the past Tinder, Bumble, Grindr, or other dating apps and 17 had not. Out of those 19, most considered themselves to be moderate users of dating apps.

The surveys consisted of a total of 24 questions, which were a mix of yes or no, Richter scale, short answer, check all that apply, and basic demographic information questions. Due to the scope and relative timeframe of this project, not all qualitative answers will be discussed. A questioner was selected as the research method since honest, anonymous answers were required. It was unlikely that the students would have provided honest feedback in a focus group setting as some may have been unwilling to admit their true motives as to why they use dating apps.

Results: The first research question can be answered in two ways. Most generally, in terms of who actually used dating apps. Out of those surveyed almost all of the 17 respondents who did not use a dating app stated it was because they have been in a relationship throughout the growth in popularity of dating apps. Only 2 of the 17 had other reasons for not using dating apps. One of those two, a straight male, wrote, “I would rather meet someone in person,” and another, a straight female, said she chose not to use them because of “the stigma associated with online dating/hookup apps.” The more interesting results came from the question that asked those who did use dating apps about their reasons for usage. The question allowed them to check all that apply, the reasons are listed on the right in descending order. Most used these apps simply for online entertainment purposes and for boosting their own self-confidence. In contrast, relatively few actually used it for the purpose of finding a relationship. This result is interesting when compared to the number of users of dating apps surveyed who have ever met someone in person from these apps. Only 12 people claimed to have ever actually met someone they found through a dating app in real life.

This leads us into the second research question, which provided some interesting insight into college students perceptions of dating apps. The most interesting part of these results was the glaring difference between what people seemed to think others used dating apps for versus what they actually did use them for. When students were asked about if and how their opinions of dating apps had changed since beginning college, 23 said yes and 11 no. When the yes respondents were asked to explain how their perceptions had been altered, a variety of different answers presented themselves. Many echoed one of the two following sentiments. One reaction written by a female, who identified herself as an active user of dating apps said, “It’s becoming more of a norm, less of something that you have to hide/feel embarrassed about.” This claim was echoed by many others who also said their perceptions had been transformed and they were now more comfortable using these apps due to the widespread use and acceptance of Tinder and other apps by their peers. In fact, 94.4% of all respondents felt that a lot of college students use dating apps and most even felt completely comfortable discussing their usage of dating apps with friends. The second commonly stated sentiment was stated by those who were not users of dating apps, a female non-user said, “I think I have encountered more people who use online dating, however most people I know really only use it for hooking up.” This comment echoed an interesting dichotomy; those who used dating apps identified their primary reasons being other than physical encounters, but those who have not used them have the perception that dating apps are for the purposes of finding a quick hookup.

Although most respondents indicated they did not use dating apps to find a relationship, exploring the impacts of dating apps on real life relationships posed an interesting question. Of those surveyed, 6 said they have found a serious relationship through an app. When asked if they considered it normal for a couple to meet through an app, 27 said yes and only 7 said no. Of those who answered no, a straight male best described their feelings, “I feel like a relationship can be forced or rushed if you use a dating app.” The questioner then inquired as to whether meeting online first versus in real life had an impact on the relationship; to this 16 said yes and 9 no. Common sentiments as to why people believed the answer was yes could be seen in the comments of a straight male who stated, “Meeting through an app may not provide the natural connection that begin relationships in real life.” In fact, the word natural appeared in most responses to this question, the common belief was that meeting online was inorganic. This societal stigma expanded beyond peers. All of those who used dating apps, aside from 3, said they would not talk to their family about their dating app usage, the responses were well summarized by a female student, “I think they would think it’s abnormal or sad or something of that sort.” This illustrated the conflicted feelings that many seemed to feel. A fear of judgement was a common theme throughout the responses.

Discussion and Limitations: The varied responses above further explained the stigma, misunderstanding, and uncertainty associated with the use of these apps. Even though the perceptions of college students may have changed, more broadly most still likely view these apps as an unsafe and unnatural way to date. Although the actual users of these apps mostly claim to use them for online entertainment and self-confidence boosting, most who do not use them think that they are a means to hookup.

Though telling, this research is limited in its scope. For one, those surveyed came from a relatively homogenous sample. The survey included mostly white, mostly straight, and mostly female responses. The uses and perceptions of these apps are likely to vary more significantly with more racially and sexually diverse samples. Further, most surveyed attend a religious institution for school, and the overarching power structure of the Catholic Church is likely to add to their fear of judgment or guilt from using these apps. Beyond this, a sample from a different type of university, perhaps one that is less elite could provide different insights. Though this study is not a complete and comprehensive answer to the question of why and how college students use Tinder and other service, it helps to explain the true motivation and perceptions of college users and non-users of social dating platforms.

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