Love Me Tinder

Recent study attracting press attention says students use the app to make friends. Some experts doubt it.

March 4, 2016

Tinder -- that’s that hookup app, right? Another facet of the hookup culture on college campuses that has “disturbed and saddened” older observers, according The New York Times.

But is it possible students are also using Tinder not for sex but to find friends? More than half of college students in a recent survey said they were using Tinder and other dating apps (but mostly Tinder) to find friends, not hookups. Only 20 percent of the 200 students surveyed by campus jobs start-up WayUp said they used the app for casual sex, and less than a third said they were looking for a significant other.

So. Is that really true? More than half? The study made the rounds in the news. Two hundred students isn’t a very large pool -- the app is estimated to have 50 million subscribers -- and is this even a question students would answer honestly? There’s certainly reason to be skeptical, experts say, but there might be a kernel of truth there.

“That seems a little bit of a stretch,” said Aditi Paul, a Ph.D. candidate at Michigan State University whose research has found online daters tend to break up faster and more often and are less likely to end up married than their off-line counterparts. At least a few people are indeed looking for friends on Tinder, Paul said, which she knows because she’s met some of them, but they weren’t college students.

“I find it a little bit of a stretch of reality that they’re looking for friends -- with that agenda -- with this app,” she said. Students are already surrounded by loads of people their own age with similar interests and plenty of opportunity to interact, she explained -- a near-perfect petri dish for incubating friendships. It’s not impossible that casual romantic encounters might morph into friendships, Paul said, but for students “to look at these apps through just those friendships seems like a little bit of a stretch.”

Also, Paul noted, it’s entirely possible that students weren’t entirely forthcoming with their answers. “Not many people want to admit they’re on Tinder, but somehow they have millions of subscribers.”

But wouldn’t those same characteristics -- people your age with similar interests, ages and attributes -- make college campuses just as accommodating for seekers of romance?

“The fact that college students are using Tinder at all shows they are not finding what they want on their own campuses, where they are surrounded by so many other singles who are so similar to themselves,” said Kathleen Bogle, who wrote a book about campus dating, in an email. “That fact alone is interesting.”

“When I interviewed [students], I asked them to dream up how they would [prefer to] get together in a romantic, sexual relationship,” Bogle said, and they had a hard time answering. “They were having trouble visualizing any alternative to the party-centered hookup culture that exists …. Dating apps and sites provide an alternative.”

As to whether they might be using those apps to find friends, Bogle said categories and definitions are so blurry that it’s definitely a possibility.

“Many college students are not very clear what they want in terms of sexual or romantic relationships. That is part of the reason the vague concept of hooking up has flourished on college campuses,” she said. “A hookup can be a one-night stand or the beginning of seeing each other or the start of a committed romantic relationship. It can also be anything from kissing to intercourse on the sexual spectrum. My guess is that when college students use Tinder, they don't know exactly what they want -- or what they'll find. So, they may say on surveys that they are open to many different possibilities, including just making some new friends (who they may or may not actually hook up with).”

There also may be a stigma at play, she said, against specifying exactly what someone may be looking for. “Although many students are in romantic relationships, they treat that outcome like an accident, not something they searched for and found,” she said. Still, “I don’t know that I believe that people are just trying to make friends via Tinder and have no other intentions beyond that … I think that’s just a sign of being open to whatever happens, happens.”

On a statistically useless, purely anecdotal level, platonic Tinder use has been attempted. Unsuccessfully, however.

“I’ve never heard of a successful case of someone using a dating site like that,” said Yoseph Radding, a senior at Michigan State University and co-creator of the app LykeMe, which aims to succeed where dating apps have apparently failed by connecting people with similar interests and hopefully forming long-lasting friendships. “It does makes sense for someone to want to use Tinder” that way, he said. “It’s easier than going out to a party, especially if you’re someone who doesn't like partying that much or just wants to study … but at the same time, the way it is marketed is detrimental to finding friends.” In other words, it’s a dating app. It’s supposed to facilitate dates.

Tinder itself has, in the past, insisted its users aren’t only in search of hollow, loveless encounters.

But research about how and why people are using dating sites and apps is all over the place and often contradictory.

“Think online dating is amazing? The University of Chicago has your back,” writes Caitlin Dewey in The Washington Post. “Already convinced … that we’re living through some kind of apocalypse? Studies from the University of Michigan will gladly ‘prove’ it.”

In her article, Dewey rounds up a number of studies and papers with differing conclusions including one that looked at the same data set Paul did for her research but found a far rosier outcome (namely that relationship quality and strength is similar online and off).

For now, the verdict is apparently still out as to how many colleges students are searching for which kind of companionship on Tinder. At least some are getting a little free food out of it, though.


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