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Dating App Addiction is Real

The unhealthiest relationship most singles have is with their phones.

Ask most singles, and they'll tell you their most messed up relationships are the ones with their dating apps. Ghosting, unanswered texts, false hopes, and maybe even some casual emotional abuse for your commute. Still, the swiping continues, and a new survey from Match confirms why even the sorest of fingers come crawling back: One in six singles (15 percent) say they actually feel addicted to the process of looking for a date. Men have it worse—they're 97 percent more likely to feel addicted to dating than women—but women are 54 percent more likely to feel burned out by the whole process. 

The mental fatigue that comes with being a 20- and 30-something on Tinder, Bumble, Hinge, or Hater (a new app for people who hate things in common—sad or genius?) is palpable: "It's exhausting matching with someone and having lots of chemistry via text, and then meeting up and realizing it was a complete waste of time—either because they don't look like their photos of they're just not as interesting in real life," says Elan, 29, a product designer in Brooklyn. "You have to get a conversation off the ground with a complete stranger, put in all that small talk, and then nothing happens," says Amy, 26, a recruiter in Chicago. 

Two-thirds of swipers have never even gone on a date with someone they met through an app. And getting blown off by a complete stranger—whom you pity-swiped right to start with—certainly leaves a sting. "No faster way to go from hot to cold than in that split second after a swipe. 'Oh, they didn't match with me? They're terrible, fuck 'em,' " says John, 31, a music manager in Nashville. 

Yet singles circle back for one simple reason. "Dating apps are basically slot machines—there's the promise that you're going to find something good, and every once in a while you get a little positive reinforcement to keep going," says David Greenfield, founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction and a professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. Researchers call it variable ratio reinforcement: The prize is unpredictable in terms of how much, or when, but it's out there. And as we swipe for a mate—or sex—enough attractive matches and promising texts provide that mini-hit of dopamine to the brain that keeps us coming back for more. 

"I'll match with someone, and tell myself I'll stop as soon as I get one more good match. Soon you realize an hour's gone by," says Jenny, 28, a tech sales rep in San Francisco. 

Greenfield says those feelings of addiction come as no surprise, and most of us can't help ourselves, anyway. "Dopamine is a powerful neurotransmitter—it's wired into the circuits of survival like eating and sex, so you're talking about going against something that's been biologically evolved in the brain for tens of thousands of years."

Humans, we should note, are kind of cavalier about the use of the word addiction—Greenfield says the numbers of people who have a real problem, meaning you use the app like a drug, you've developed a tolerance to it, or it gets in the way of real-life relationships, work, or their health, is unclear. 

Plus, cruising through a list of 100 singles over a lunch break can feel more productive than finishing a PowerPoint, and it's not a total wash. Five percent of people in a committed relationship even said they met their significant other online—so there's hope yet. 

And if your dating app addiction rivals your enslavement to Instagram, you're in good company. Just prep for a little suffering. "Ultimately, having endless choices doesn't make us happier—it makes us more stressed," says Greenfield. Maybe a good argument to head to happy hour instead and see who shows up—but with Tinder as backup. 

Update 2/22/17: A previous version of this story said that two-thirds of swipers have never gone on a date with someone they met through an app. The correct figure is one-third.