Upset Girl Using Smartphone

(Credit: Andrii Iemelianenko/Shutterstock)

TORONTO — Although most online dating apps are strictly for adults over the age of 18, an unsettling new study finds preteens are finding ways to enter the chat. Researchers found that some children as young as 11 and 12 years-old are already dipping their toes into the world of dating and online romances.

The research, published in the journal BMC Research Notes, analyzed data from over 10,000 kids ages 11 to 12 who are part of the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study. This major long-term study has been investigating brain development and child health across the United States.

While the vast majority of preteens were not using these apps, which often promote casual hookups between consenting adults, a small but noteworthy 0.4 percent admitted to having used a dating app before. That may sound like a tiny percentage, but it works out to around one in 250 underage kids exploring dating apps designed for adults.

Why are some seemingly innocent 11 and 12-year-olds visiting the online dating world so soon? The researchers found some striking trends that give us clues.

Boys were almost three times more likely than girls to have used a dating app by that age. There could be a few reasons – boys tend to consume more screen time than girls in early adolescence, and they may feel online dating lets them virtually explore romantic relationships before the risks of in-person dating.

Even more pronounced was the impact of sexual orientation. Kids who identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual were a staggering 13 times more likely to use an online dating app compared to their straight peers.

“Lesbian, gay, or bisexual adolescents, including preteens, may have limited romantic partner options in their schools, where they may also face discrimination, bullying, and stigma because of their sexual orientation,” says lead author Jason Nagata, MD, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of California-San Francisco, in a media release. “Dating apps may allow adolescents to easily identify other LGB users in close geographic proximity, whereas it may be more difficult to determine a potential partner’s sexual orientation in real life.”

Sad young boy with smartphone
Boys were almost three times more likely than girls to have used a dating app by the age of 11. (Credit: New Africa/Shutterstock)

The researchers add that dating apps take advantage of GPS technology to match users with others nearby — incredibly useful for finding a dating partner if these preteens don’t know any other LGBTQ+ people in your town or school.

Easy access to a smartphone or tablet is really the only barrier to entry for most dating apps and websites, the study finds. Even though terms of service require users to be 18 or older, kids can simply enter a fake birthdate to get access. Without robust age verification from the apps themselves, it becomes difficult to control underage use.

So, why are incidents of preteen online dating worth paying attention to? Prior studies have linked early adolescent online dating with higher risks down the road. Girls who start online dating before age 18 tend to have higher rates of anxiety, depression, and unprotected sex. Both boys and girls who started using dating apps at a young age also reported receiving more insults, privacy violations, threats of violence, and unwanted sexual advances from predators.

The authors point out that while sexuality develops gradually over adolescence, too much too soon in terms of romantic relationships and sexual behavior can disrupt a child’s normal development and set them up for problematic patterns later. The researchers suggest that sexual health education for preteens may need to start incorporating discussions around safe online dating practices earlier than most curriculums currently do. With issues like sexting, online grooming, and dating violence becoming more prevalent, kids need guidance in this digital landscape.

For now, parents are really the first line of defense. Having open conversations about online safety, healthy relationships, and appropriate romantic milestones for their age can help set appropriate boundaries. Parental controls on devices can also limit exposure to dating apps and provide a bit more of a buffer against early entry into the adult dating scene.

About Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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