Even if you’re ‘on the apps’, it feels pretty hard to meet people these days

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Westend61 GmbH/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Westend61 GmbH/Alamy

To date or not to date is no longer the question. Instead, it is to date or not date online.

I am old enough to remember eHarmony ads on TV, but young enough to know more people on dating apps than not.

I know some operate on a “monthly swipe” regime, carefully limiting their time on the apps so it does not become all-consuming. Others are caught in a vicious cycle of download, delete, re-download, repeat. And then there are those who tried it once, or not at all, and are determined to steer clear altogether. That’s me.

This is not a love story or a tale of the moment I knew. Because even with connection at our fingertips more than ever, it feels pretty hard to meet people today.

So much so that when asked if I have a partner, I find I almost justify my response – no – with “Well, I’m not on the apps”, as though you must be a hermit if you have no dating profile and it is the only way a relationship could happen.

Related: ‘The group reminded me I wasn’t crazy’: unmasking the worst dating offenders

It is not.

Our relationship with dating apps has become complicated. Last year we marked 10 years of Tinder, but a growing number of people are still rejecting the apps in favour of meeting people in real life – in the office, through friends, in pubs and at the age-old meeting place, weddings.

For all the horror stories out there, there are success stories online too. They are no less romantic, long-lasting or less valued. I know of several. But for those who have abandoned all hope of an online romance, our use of technology sometimes feels like it prevents old-school encounters and curtails opportunities to strike up conversation.

That’s not to say we can expect it to happen like in the movies. We may hope to spill a drink on our soulmate and live happily ever after but it won’t be like when Harry meets Sally, or when Hugh Grant spills orange juice on Julia Roberts on the streets of Notting Hill.

But it does feel as though these kind of meet-cutes have become rare, even if dating apps like Happn claim to be able to engineer a brush with the One. So why does doing it online feel so different? Surely swiping left or right would involve the same degree of chance as bumping into someone?

I see the same five people at the bus stop each day (no candidates), but at a bus stop across the city there could be a spark. The apps can take me to that bus stop in a way my commute never can. But I still don’t want to be mindlessly swiped or mulled over.

Dating in the digital age is fraught enough. Apps aside, we’re labelled as a generation obsessed with our phones and the dopamine hits from social media notifications that fuel addictive behaviour. With partners, flings or friends, young people can be eaten up by cryptic text messages or lack thereof. The number of “how to tell if my messages have been read” articles online prove it.

And just like knowing which emojis mean what, you also have to be up with the dating lingo. Sadly most people know what ghosting and gaslighting are, as both manipulative behaviours have increased with the rise of online dating. But do you know what “cookie jarring” or “orbiting” is? “Cuffing season”? Those still at uni tell me “rizz” is “a big one” on TikTok at the moment. You can turn to the New York Times guide to modern dating to decode them for yourself.

The apps are also increasingly becoming fraught with fears for online safety and high rates of sexual violence that make the phrase “share your location with me” commonplace among young people as they wish their friends well on date night.

The news that even the Chinese government is getting involved, collecting data on singles to match them with others on a state-sponsored app, not to mention the invention of a long-distance kissing machine, prove that technology and dating aren’t divorcing anytime soon.

Friends say we app sceptics will download them at a certain age out of desperation. But for now, follow the sound advice of mums and mentors: there’s no rush, relationships don’t define you and you must keep your standards high. Just not Prince Charming high. Carrie Bradshaw will tell you that’s nothing but a fairytale.

So while technology means we may not have to worry about losing the slip of paper someone’s phone number was written on, or wait by the landline for someone to call, apps are still a choice. Anyone who tells you otherwise has spent too long scrolling.

  • Maddie Thomas is an editorial assistant at Guardian Australia