Jenna created a Tinder profile when she was 17. Using the dating app’s toggling age form, she chose “18,” the youngest available option, and wrote “actually 17” on her profile. This was common practice at the New Jersey high school where she was a senior and her best way into a swipe-right culture that promised access to intimacy and acceptance. Jenna was a teenager. She had never been kissed. She wasn’t very popular. This was a no-brainer.
“Why did I do it? So… my friends had boyfriends. And I didn’t. I mean, no one at my school seems like worth it. And it’s like, an easier way to find other people in the area. I was also considering hooking up with people,” says Jenna, who is now 19. “Was it useful? That’s debatable.”
Jenna joined Tinder in 2016, shortly after the company announced that the platform would be excluding the 13- to 17-year-olds it had previously welcomed. Though Tinder co-founder Justin Mateen had defended providing young people with access, saying it was a way to make friends, the company caved to public pressure. It was clear, after all, that teens weren’t just using Tinder to find friends. For many, it had become a place to find random hookups and validation. For others, it had become a safe place to experiment with their sexuality. Perhaps for most, it offered a rough introduction into the adult sexual economy.
“I got close to hooking up with one person, and then I backed out real hardcore,” recalls Jenna. ”He wanted to get a hotel. I was like, ‘My guy, I don’t have money, I can’t pay for a hotel.’”
I downloaded Tinder in April of 2019 to search for underage users on the platform for this story (I’ve changed the names of the users I interview for the sake of their privacy). The process of downloading the dating app took me less than a minute. Tinder didn’t ask for my age or require me to link to my Facebook or other existing social media accounts. I just had to verify my email address. For my first profile, I used an actual photo of myself as well as my real name and actual age. Thinking I might find more under-18s if I posed as an 18-year-old, I deleted my account and made a new one with the same picture, same name, and a different email in the same span of time. I also pressed Tinder on their age verification standards, but they did not respond to requests for comment. (The app allows users to report on people not using it properly, but that seems to be the extent of the monitoring.)
Launched in 2012, Tinder has long been the most popular dating app in the world. Used in about 200 countries, it boasts 10 million active daily users and 50 million total users. At the time Tinder announced new age restrictions, three percent of its daily user base was underage, amounting to some 1.5 million minors. But many didn’t leave. They pretended to be 18 and stuck around for the thrill of it. Scrolling through the app, dozens of profiles surface of users who are ostensibly 20 with “actually 18” written in their profiles, which suggests these users signed up at 16 and aged up with the app rather than creating new profiles. For better and mostly worse, the teens are still there.
How many underage kids are on Tinder? It’s impossible to say, but according to research by Monica Anderson at the PEW Research Center, 95 percent of teenagers have a smartphone. More than a few is a safe guess.
Dr. Gail Dines, President and CEO of Culture Reframed and Professor Emerita of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Wheelock College, argues that teens retaining access to Tinder exacerbates a major cultural issue. Dines studies the way that the easy and ubiquitous access to pornography on the Internet affects romantic dating culture and argues that Tinder and other such dating apps have changed the teenage years by providing teens with a reason to obsess over their sexual presentation.
“What we’ve done is we’ve compressed their childhood,” says Dines. “Now, teens are meant to be sexual at a much earlier age, because those are the messages that are coming at them all the time. Especially for girls.”
The key message coming at them, Dines said, is that they’re either “fuckable” or invisible. She explains that this incentivizes teenagers to try to make themselves “fuckable in order to be visible” and that this dynamic effects children of younger and younger ages. Young girls have long been sexualized. Now, they are self-sexualizing to an increasing degree. And Tinder gives them a platform on which to practice being objectified and objectifying each other in lieu of developing strong social bonds.
“You cannot replace social media with actually being in a group,” Dines says. “The things you learn from being in a group, in real time, are not replaceable with social media. How to act, how to get cues from people, what works and doesn’t work for you — all of those things.”
Adolescence, Dines adds, is a time for experimentation on every level. It’s a big world out there and teenagers are trying to locate themselves in it. By moving away from the physical, teens are missing out on a very crucial experience.
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