When I was single and active on dating apps, all I wanted was some old-fashioned courtship: to schedule some dates with a few good men, and take it from there.
This goal could have been easily accomplished by checking the apps just a handful of times per week. And yet, what I ended up doing was checking them a handful of times per hour — at home, on my commute, at work, on special occasions. I once almost missed the hotel shuttle to a wedding ceremony because I was caught up in a flirting session with a "curious straight guy" on Tinder.
Ever since I met my boyfriend two years ago, I've been off dating apps. But I still remember what it was like to be checking them every few minutes, always feeling a mini rush of excitement every time yet another person confirmed my fuckability.
So when new stories emerge of other people coming out as dating or hook-up app addicts, I'm not surprised. I understand. But how, exactly, do the apps make it so easy for us to get hooked in the first place? And what can we do to quit?
Earlier this month, Rich Juzwiak at Gawker dove into the reasons why gay men in particular can become dependent on hook-up apps. He suggested that there's a correlation between feeling innately undesirable — something gay men are prone to do, often as a result of growing up in predominantly heteronormative environments — and developing a nagging adult need to constantly gather evidence to the contrary.
"Whereas previous generations of gay men could get a vague idea of their desirability from eye contact, spoken compliments, or a high number of interested potential sex partners at bars, parties, and bathhouses, today's feedback is accessible, tangible, and fits in a pants pocket," he wrote. "The value of this type of feedback to members of a population that is full of men who grew up feeling undesirable outside of the mainstream ... has the potential to be immense."
This idea gets to the heart of what was going on with me during my peak usage. Viewing myself as lovable was a constant struggle in my early and mid-twenties, largely because my gay, fat childhood had manifested in my adulthood as a, somewhat common, double whammy of internal shame. Every expression of interest from a new guy served as a quick shot of validation for the insecure 10-year-old in me who used to work out to Richard Simmons VHS tapes and steal diet pills from Wal-Mart.
"Every expression of interest from a new guy served as a quick shot of validation."
But it's not just gay dudes with self-esteem issues who get hooked. The nature of dating and hook-up apps makes them inherently addictive to anyone who enjoys receiving positive attention.
"If the frontal cortex decides having a Tinder response is pleasurable, it's going to give you a shot of dopamine," UCLA neuroscience professor Ellen Carpenter told Fusion last year. "You then associate that pleasurable feeling with a ping on your phone."
Exactly how much pleasure you derive from Tinder responses may have something to do with whether or not you are getting that kind of validation or fulfillment elsewhere — which I obviously was not.
"Addiction always reflects an underlying psychological need that isn't met," New York University's Adam Alter, author of the forthcoming book Irresistible: the Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, told me in an email. "For some people, that need is social validation; for others it's confirmation that they're attractive; and for others still it might be a sense of mastery over the environment when they feel helpless or powerless."
Nancy Jo Sales, author of American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, as well as last year's viral Vanity Fair hook-up culture dispatch, "Tinder and the Dawn of the Dating Apocalypse," told me in an email she believes the problem of dating app addiction has roots in social media addiction as a whole.
"I think [they] are related," she said. "You can't really 'break' your dating app addiction without addressing the whole addictive nature of social media itself."
That addictive nature has just as much to do with ego boosts as it does with the unpredictability of where the ego boosts will come from next.
"New notifications or the latest content on your newsfeed acts as a reward," SUNY Albany psychologist Julia Hormes said in a statement accompanying a 2014 study on the topic of Facebook addiction. "Not being able to predict when new content is posted encourages us to check back frequently."
This pattern explains why I compulsively checked my apps throughout the day, even when I knew it wasn't really the right time or place. "What if someone sent me a new message within the past five minutes?" I'd ask myself when trying to put the phone down. "Did that hot guy from this morning see the message I sent him yet? Let me just check when he was last online."
So let's say you're one of those people who is addicted to a hookup app. You recognize the addiction and you want to quit. How the hell do you go from being one of those perpetual "deleting soon" people to being the rare success story who actually breaks the cycle for good?
"The key to overcoming any addiction in the long run is to address that psychological need in another way," Alter told me. "Which is why people often overcome addictions when they enter into a healthy relationship, begin a group or team activity (sports, arts, etc.) that creates social connections, or otherwise fulfill the need that was previously met by the addictive behavior."
Given that I was using the apps as a stand-in for the relationship that I ultimately wanted, this easily explains how I managed to quit. Once I developed a connection with someone offline, shallow greetings from online strangers suddenly seemed so unfulfilling by comparison.
But of course you don't have to magically meet the love of your life overnight to begin the recovery process. Alter offered a number of small steps you can take in the short-term to develop a healthier relationship to your dating apps.
"Sometimes simple decisions make a big difference in changing an addictive behavior," he said. "For example, can you reach your phone right now? If the answer is yes, you're far more likely to develop a smartphone-related addiction, whether to an app like Grindr, to checking your email, or to playing a smartphone game. The trick is to 'lose' your phone for certain hours of the day."
Anyone familiar with the concept of a digital detox might recognize some of Alter's suggestions for doing so: "Turn off the ringer, turn off the vibrate function, and leave it in a drawer — or even a different drawer on different days. Make it hard to find."
"The trick is to 'lose' your phone for certain hours of the day."
This is what he calls "behavioral architecture," which works by "reducing the sting of addiction by redesigning your life so that addictive triggers occupy progressively smaller parts of your mental and physical space. On the first day, you might leave your phone in a drawer for an hour; by the end of the week, for three hours; and by the end of two weeks for several hours at a time."
The suggestion to start out by simply locking your phone in a drawer might sound a little too obvious or even trite to take seriously. But what's the alternative?
When I look back at when I was in the throes of my own addiction, I realize I donated way too many hours of my life to a mindless cycle that had absolutely nothing to do with why I was on the apps in the first place. Perhaps putting my damn phone in a drawer for a few hours a day, however painful at first, could have helped me to clear my mind enough to realize this fact on my own.
In the end, it only took a small handful of OkCupid messages for me to schedule the date that would eventually lead to more dates that would eventually lead to the relationship I wanted in the first place. Everything beyond that was just a big waste of time.