WASHINGTON (TND) — A warning for the growing number of Americans looking for love online. A recent study reveals disturbing trends in sexual assaults related to meeting people on dating apps.
Spotlight on America’s national investigative reporter Angie Moreschi takes a closer look at who’s being targeted and what’s being done about it.
Online dating is one of the most common ways people meet each other today, and while a swipe to the right can hold the promise of meeting someone special, it’s important for people to keep their guard up.
“All of our findings really indicate to us that violent sexual predators use dating apps as hunting grounds for vulnerable victims,” said Dr. Julie Valentine, who is the primary author of the study out of Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo, Utah.
Valentine is a certified sexual assault examiner and a Nursing Professor at BYU. Her team conducted the first major study of its kind, looking at the relationship between dating apps and sexual assaults.
What we found is incredibly concerning,” she said. “We found that these rapes were much more violent. A third of the victims were strangled.”
Several recent cases in the news highlight concerns of more violent attacks related to dating apps, including:
The BYU study analyzed Utah sexual assault victims’ medical exam charts from 2017 to 2020. They found that 14% of the 1,968 rapes committed by acquaintances happened during a first-time meeting arranged through a dating app. They also reported male victims were nearly twice as common among app-related assaults.
And not only were the attacks significantly more violent, but researchers say predators appeared to use dating apps to target vulnerable victims. Sixty percent of victims reviewed self-reported mental illness.
(It was) everything from anxiety, social anxiety, depression, PTSD. It may be that these victims are just more likely to be swayed by someone who provides false flattery, who tries to get them alone. We really want individuals with mental illness to realize that this is a heightened vulnerability,” Valentine said.
Dating apps are especially popular with young people, and the study also found college students were more likely to be victims of dating app-related assaults.
“Wow, that’s pretty horrible,” Ben Mermel, a senior at American University told Spotlight on America, when we talked with students on campus in our nation’s capital.
That sentiment was echoed by American University sophomore Alyrie Gillium who said, “It’s terrifying. It really is.”
Libby Eaglin is a grad student at American and told Spotlight she has seen red flags at times when using dating apps.
Someone getting offended that you’d rather meet them at a location, than having them pick you up from your house or something,” Eaglin said, remembering one of the concerning encounters she had.
The potential for deception is also noted as an added risk.
“Many motivated offenders are really good at having a false persona,” Valentine said.
Misrepresenting who you are on a dating app, or “catfishing” as it’s called, is something American freshman Jack Riley said he finds disturbing.
“The fact that it literally can be anybody, as far as your actual identity and what you’re representing on the app,” Riley said.
Spotlight on America did reach out to several dating app companies for comment. The Match Group, which owns Tinder, Hinge, Plenty of Fish and Match, responded quickly.
Gender-based violence is a widespread societal issue that no one should experience or endure. At Match Group, we recognize the role we have to help make dating safer for everyone and it’s the reason we make continuous investments in technology to enhance our ongoing safety efforts across our portfolio,” Match Group Spokesperson Kayla Whaling told Spotlight on America.
Whaling said Match Group has made a lot of investments in safety features over the past several years, “including anti-harassment prompts that proactively intervene if harmful language is detected and making online background checks available to users.”
Match Group provided this additional information outlining the company’s approach to safety for its users.
There are calls for dating app companies to do more to protect users. Following the BYU study, Utah passed a new law this year to do just that.
“We wanted just to start this beginning process about awareness and holding dating apps accountable,” said Democratic Utah state representative Angela Romero, who sponsored the legislation.
The Match Group actually worked with Romero on the legislation, which will now require dating apps in Utah to:
If I can save one life if I can have one person think twice about where they're going to meet someone or to inform someone where they're at, then I’ve done my job as a policymaker,” Romero said.
Romero says her message is not to stop using dating apps, but to be aware of potential risks.
Three important safety tips to remember when using a dating app:
Click here for more dating app safety tips from RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest Network.
If you or someone you know has experienced sexual violence, you can access help and services through RAINN’s 24-hour National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).