Dating app warning: Violent sexual predators use services as ‘hunting grounds’ for new targets

PROVO, Utah — Dating apps have changed the way people connect, making it easier than ever to find love near and far. Services like Tinder or Bumble are now the best options for many singles searching for a date on a Friday night. Concerning new research from Brigham Young University is revealing the dark side of the digital dating, however. Scientists report their findings suggest violent sexual predators use dating apps as “hunting grounds” for vulnerable victims.

A Brigham Young University nursing team analyzed the medical charts of sexual assault victims in Utah between 2017-2020, noting that 14 percent of 1,968 documented rapes committed by acquaintances took place during an initial meetup arranged via a dating app. Disturbingly, those cases also stood out in a different way; people with mental illnesses and other vulnerabilities appeared to be targeted specifically, and the attacks were significantly more violent. This was the largest study to date covering this uncomfortable but very important aspect of modern dating practices.

“What we found is incredibly concerning,” says BYU nursing professor Julie Valentine in a university release. “We’d started to see an increase of victims reporting being raped after meeting someone on a dating app, and we wanted to know if rapes facilitated through dating apps differed from other acquaintance rapes. They are indeed very different.”

Prior research tells us that people suffering from a form of mental illness are already more likely to be sexually assaulted. Now, this latest work reveals 47 percent of the victims of acquaintance rape unrelated to dating apps disclosed a mental illness. However, the number was still higher among those assaulted during a first meeting set up through an app, as 60 percent disclosed a mental illness.

“In a dating app, people can shape themselves however they want to appeal to vulnerable victims. Those with mental illnesses like depression may be more susceptible to a predator who might, for example, flatter them profusely and persuade them to meet in person,” Prof. Valentine explains.

Are certain dating app users at greatest risk?

College students were deemed more likely to fall victim to a dating-app-facilitated assault. Male victims were nearly twice as common among app-related assaults in comparison to other acquaintance assaults.

Again, dating-app-facilitated rapes were unusually violent. These attacks led to more injuries than other acquaintance rapes. For instance, one quarter of such victims had breast injuries. Another 33 percent reported being strangled. In comparison, 22 percent of victims who were not meeting perpetrators for the first time through an app reported strangulation.

Study authors posit that dating apps need to develop better ways for users to screen potential matches or partners.“It used to be that people would meet through mutual friends or at work or school, and there was a degree of vetting that went in place before dating. Dating apps have completely taken away that process,” Prof. Valentine adds.

You don’t have to stop swiping, but better safety is vital

Right now, dating apps offer users a written set of “guidelines for safe dating.” Researchers say this approach is inadequate because it places the burden of safety on potential victims. Many victims may end up blaming themselves for being convinced by a predator to meet, and that self-blame could lead to them not reporting the assault/rape.

“Dating app companies can increase artificial intelligence to identify perpetrators, have stricter identification requirements for users, run criminal history searches at no extra charge and connect with other companies to ensure that perpetrators aren’t just jumping from one app to another. They can also improve ways for victims to report assaults and provide more support services for victims,” Prof. Valentine suggests.

Researchers are hopeful such changes will soon be a reality. The BYU team recently collaborated with various dating app companies and legislators to draft a Utah House bill called “Online Dating Safety Requirements,” intended to improve safety in dating apps. The bill is sponsored by Representative Angela Romero. Study authors are optimistic the bill has a strong chance of being passed during the next legislative session, and would like to see other states follow their example.

“What I don’t want people to take from the study is that we shouldn’t use dating apps — they’re the number-one way that happy couples meet. We want to preserve that but increase the safety,” Prof. Valentine concludes.

The study is published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence.

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