Terry downloaded Tinder when she was 17 and it was legal to be on the platform. She was looking to have “random, meaningless sex” after a bad breakup. Like the others, Terry, who is now 22, says that all of her friends were on the app. Unlike them, she listed her real age and ultimately regretted it. Before she abandoned the apps, she had run-ins with men who lied about their age or who wanted to pick her up and take her to an undisclosed location.
“I had horrible experiences,” she says. “I had a lot of guys that wanted to like, pick me up, and meet me in a place that was secluded, and didn’t understand why that was weird or just expected sex right off the bat.”
Terry’s most concerning experiences involved older guys who said they were 25 or 26 and listed a different age in their bio. “Like, why don’t you just put your real age?” she says. “It’s really weird. There are some creeps on there.”
Although there’s no public statistic on fake Tinder profiles, avoiding Tinder scams and spotting fake people on the app is fundamental to the experience of using it. Adults know this. Teens don’t. Many see a fun app for meeting people or hooking up. And it’s easy to feel concerned about these minors posing as legal adults to get on a platform that makes it so easy to create a profile — real or fake.
Amanda Rose, a 38-year-old mom and professional matchmaker from New York, has two teenage boys, 15 and 17, and concerns about the way that social media and tech has changed dating. To her knowledge, her kids haven’t dated anyone they met online and they don’t use Tinder (she has the passwords to all of her kids’ phones and social media accounts.) But she’s also had many talks with them about the problem with tech and her concerns.
“We’ve had the talk that the person they are talking to might be posting pictures that are not really them,” she says. “It could be someone fake. You have to be really careful and mindful about who you interact with online.”
Amanda’s also concerned about how much teenagers — and the adult clients with whom she works — resort to the digital in order to repair their relationships or remain connected to the world.
“I’ve noticed, even with my clients, that people go to texting. They don’t pick up the phone and call someone. I talk to my kids about that: about how important it is to actually, pick up the phone and not hide behind a phone or a computer screen,” she says. “Because that’s where you build relationships.”
If you just stay behind text messages, Amanda says, you’re not going to build stronger relationships. Even when her oldest son talks about issues with his girlfriend, she tells him: “Don’t text her. You need to step outside if you don’t want anyone to hear the conversation and pick up the phone and call her.”
Still, certain teenagers who ventured onto Tinder have positive stories. Katie, who asked to be referred to by her first name only for privacy, went to an all-girls Catholic school and had a conservative family. She used the app as a way to figure out her sexual identity and credits it for helping her navigate a new and burgeoning sense of self in a way that didn’t leave her open to hostile teenagers, school staff, or disapproving family members.
“I was not out. I was very, very in the closet,” she says. “It was one of my first ever moments of letting myself kind of even acknowledge that I was bisexual. It felt very safe and private.”
On Tinder, Katie says she saw women from her high school looking for other women. Seeing this helped her feel less alone.
“I was 16 and had no idea that they felt that way,” she says. “They didn’t know I felt that way.”
Katie downloaded Tinder at a volleyball tournament. She was with a bunch of friends. They were all women and all straight.
“I was dealing with having queer feelings and not having anyone to talk to about it. I didn’t feel like I could actually talk to anybody, even my close friends about it at that point. So, I kind of used it more to just figure out what being gay is like, I guess.”
Her experience was freeing. “It didn’t feel threatening to flirt with women, and just figure myself out in a way that involved different people without having to feel like I exposed myself to people who would be unfriendly toward me,” she says.
Katie’s story is both unique and not unique. The trend of queer people using dating apps to enter relationships is well-known. Twice as many LGBTQ+ singles use dating apps than heterosexual people. About half of LGBTQ+ singles have dated someone they met online; 70 percent of queer relationships have begun online. That Katie got on the app when she was 16 is maybe not typical, but she found her first girlfriend on the app, and within a few years, came out to her family. Being able to safely explore her bisexuality in an otherwise hostile environment without coming out publicly until she was ready, Katie says, was “lifesaving.”
To find love and acceptance, one must put themselves out there. For teenagers, those whose lives are basically based around understanding and seeking acceptance, this can be an especially daunting prospect — especially so in an age when digital communication is the norm. So why not jump on Tinder, which requires one-minute of setup to help them sit on the edge of — or dive directly into — the dating pool?
“There’s that whole thing about not looking like you’re trying, right? Tinder is the lowest effort dating platform, in my opinion. Which also makes it harder to meet people,” says Jenna. “But it doesn’t look like you’re trying hard. All of the other ones don’t seem like that.”
Still, while stories like Jenna’s and Katie’s highlight how the app can provide a useful outlet of self-acceptance, neither young woman used the platform as intended. As Tinder seems to suggest by it’s tagline, “Single is a terrible thing to waste,” the app is for those looking for sex. Fostering connections may be more bug than feature. It’s not reassuring that the best stories about teens using the platform tend to emerge from edge-case scenarios, not from the typical function of the app, which is designed as a sexual outlet, but may also condition its user to accepting certain types of sexual experiences.
“You don’t want industry to be the decider of teen sexuality,” says Dines. “Why would you leave it to a profit-based industry?”
That’s a profound question and not one teens are likely to dwell on. Teens will continue to experiment because, well, that’s what teens do. And if they don’t receive guidance from adults in their lives, their early experiences on platforms like Tinder will shape their approach to adult relationships going forward. More than anything, that may be the hazard teens face on Tinder: the morphing of their own expectations.
“You don’t want to leave it to the [profiteers],” says Dines. “We want more for our kids than that, no matter their sexuality.”