Worldwide, a typical Grindr user spends approximately two hours a day on the app. That’s more time than we spend eating, and more time than most of us spend exercising. Mobile geolocation dating apps are relatively new (Grindr was launched in 2009), but unlike the desktop online experience of chat rooms and forums, the mobility of the mobile app means it can be used at the office, or on the toilet, or at dinner with your parents, or even at a gay bar. Or all day.
The app offers access to one million men at any given moment, according to Ansley Brown, a representative for Grindr at PR Consulting, and the men are of all ages, races, and body types. There’s something, presumably, for any craving or type. Some gay men use these apps out of boredom, chatting endlessly with no intention of meeting, while others are horny and benefit from the promise of a convenient hookup. There are actually men who use the apps out of a desire for connection with another person. They may be geographically remote, or part of a constrained social group. Or they could just be lonely and looking for friends or a partner.
With so many options and the convenience of the apps, one might assume that we are more likely to assuage our loneliness than we could without them. In fact, the opposite may be true. Excessive use can do as much good for our mental state as devouring two extra-large McDonald’s fries at 1:30 in the morning can do for our physical health.
In much the same way that fast foods offer quick, easy satiety or comfort but can damage the body via refined sugars, sodium, and cholesterol, hookup apps offer quick connection but can damage the psyche — and the body.
Loneliness in America is on the rise. According to a study published in 2006 in American Sociological Review, 53.4 percent of Americans have no close friends or confidants outside of their immediate family, which is troubling as it’s up 17 percent since 1985. What’s more, 24.6 percent of people have no close confidante at all (up 14 percent since 1985).
Daily use of Grindr has increased 33 percent within the past three years alone. As Americans become more socially isolated with time, are we looking at correlation or causation when it comes to our staggering increase of usage? Are gay and bisexual men using hookup apps more now because we’re all becoming lonelier, or are we becoming lonelier because we are using the apps more?
There’s a vicious cycle that I’ve witnessed in my own life over the years. Often after a breakup I’d catch myself flipping from Grindr to Scruff, then Growlr to Recon, and Daddyhunt to GuySpy relentlessly. One time I even downloaded Tinder because the gay-specific apps weren’t enough. I’ve spent entire days app-hopping from one to the next, attempting to satisfy my loneliness. By the evening, if I hadn’t met anyone (which was usually the case), I’d just feel more lonely and depressed than before.
“Using hookup apps excessively could contribute to social isolation by substituting momentary, relatively anonymous, and shallow relationships for deeper, more sustaining intimacy,” says Steven Cole, a professor of medicine and psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the UCLA School of Medicine. “They’re like ‘empty calorie’ socialization — fun snacks but ultimately not deeply nutritious for our sense of belongingness and deep connection. They don’t cause literal isolation but instead promote brief relationships that may sometimes come to substitute for or even displace a deeper sense of connection to others.”
If such behavior can lead to social isolation, then what are the health consequences of this “empty calorie” socialization? John T. Cacioppo, founder and director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, was the principal investigator on a project that explains how the resulting loneliness and perceived social isolation can affect humans on a physiological level and can lead to premature death. The study examined loneliness in humans and rhesus monkeys, who are also social primates. Social species respond to loneliness and isolation, in the short term, by going into a self-preservation mode, designed to get the individual socially connected once again. This increases the immature white blood cells being produced and released into the circulation. If social connection isn’t re-established, however, the ongoing experience of social threat tunes the white blood cells in a fashion that makes them much more likely to get triggered in a pro-inflammatory way. This then secretes inflammatory cytokines proteins, resulting in depression and lethargy, which may, in turn, perpetuate loneliness.
The more peculiar part of my app-hopping was that despite these enhanced feelings of depression and loneliness, I’d continue using the apps, day after day, compulsively. I felt as though I was trapped in a cycle that I couldn’t get out of because I was feeling so lonely. Those who see themselves as lonely and isolated are particularly at risk — less so introverts who don’t view themselves as lonely.
In previous studies, Cacioppo and his colleagues had also found that lonely people exhibit higher vascular resistance, a tightening of the arteries, which raises blood pressure. Lonliness also affects the immune and nervous systems. Epidemiological studies have found that socially isolated people have an increased risk of infections and heart disease and that those with poor social skills consume more alcohol, exercise less, and eat poorly.
At TEDx Des Moines, Cacioppo gave a talk that emphasized the importance of recognizing the signals of loneliness that can lead us to such symptoms that accompany excessive use. The problem is that loneliness had been falsely characterized as a non-chronic disease associated with shyness, depression, being a loner, or having marginal social skills.
“You don’t hear people talking about feeling lonely, and that’s because loneliness is stigmatized — the psychological equivalent to being a loser in life, or a weak person,” Cacioppo explained.
Rather than using these apps to respond to loneliness, we can combat it by developing a trusted relationship with someone whom we can confide in, and who can confide in us. Of course, this is easier said than done, and it’s often the very thing that leads so many lonely gay and bisexual men to these apps — they’re looking for that confidante. There are other things that can be done, though. Spending good times with family and friends helps, as well as participating in something bigger than us, such as volunteering in an area that holds personal significance.
“Instead of trying to ‘find people to spend time with,’ it may be easier to forge new deep bonds if we focus more on finding a cause or purpose to devote ourselves to,” suggests Cole, who was a collaborator on Cacioppo’s loneliness study. “When that happens, we are much more likely to easily encounter others who share our aspirations and inspirations, our backgrounds and values, and this can be a powerful way of re-establishing connection. In other words, to cure a disease of disconnection, it may be more efficient to pursue some sort of purpose or mission or hobby, rather than consciously seek companionship.”
In Cacioppo’s TEDx talk, he explained that living with obesity increases the odds of an early death by 20%. Excessive alcohol consumption increases the odds by 30%. Loneliness, however, increases the odds of an early death by a staggering 45% because of the psychological and physiological implications it bears. Since excessive use of hookup apps perpetuates that feeling, we can begin to see how it may be less lethal to pick up a Big Mac than your smartphone. This is not to say that hookup apps are a bad thing; they offer convenience and variety when you’re feeling more socially connected. But when you’re not, it’s not a bad thing to think twice about making hookup apps your primarily tool for meeting new people.
“Devotion to a cause or purpose, other than just finding someone, is a great way to accidentally find someone who really works for you,” says Cole. “And it’s the ‘really works for you’ part that is the ultimate solution to loneliness.”