Children as young as 12 are accessing dating apps such as Tinder, Match.com, OkCupid, Bumble and Gridr, creating the risk of exposure to undesirable adult content and even dangerous contacts or liaisons.
Bypassing the age restrictions is still relatively easy and could be dangerous to adolescents, criminology experts warn, with Flinders University researcher Tahlia Hart presenting part of an Australian study to the Global Dating Insights conference next week (4-5 July 2023).
“While government agencies and the platforms themselves look to mitigate harms to vulnerable users, our study examines the motivations of underage users, how they access the sites and their experiences,” says Flinders University PhD candidate Tahlia Hart, from the, who is part of the ARC ‘Becoming Delinquent Online’ research project.
Based on interviews with 46 young adults who used these sites as minors, the study found that underage individuals are active on these sites, despite the sites being pitched as adults only.
“We also asked them to reflect on how these experiences affected their dating behaviour and use of online sites as they transitioned to early adulthood,” says Ms Hart.
“Worryingly, adolescents are exposed to multiple harms by going on dating sites. They may experience inappropriate online abuse and even encounter online groomers or become victims of statutory rape with adult users.
“Some adolescent users had willingly met up with users offline to engage in a range of activities, sometimes criminal (e.g. underage drinking, illicit drug use, sexual activities whilst under the age of consent).
“Children are not the only ones at risk. Even bona fide adult users of these sites potentially face serious criminal risks if they unwittingly engage with a minor either in online or offline contexts.
Another finding from the study found many teenagers think it’s ‘normal’ to be on adult dating apps whilst underage. In the past some dating app companies have actively encouraged underage online connections.
Reasons cited by interviewees for going on dating sites included seeking friendships, romantic partners, sexual hook-ups and exploring identity concerns.
“There was also clearly a desire by many to be entertained as well as FOMO, a fear of missing out on activity in which their peers were seen or believed to be taking part in. For some, the taboo of engaging with adult sites was thrilling,” Ms Hart says.
A 2022 study by the Australian Institute of Criminology found 12.4% of adult dating app users had received a request from another user to facilitate sexual exploitation of a child accessible to them. A National Roundable on Online Dating Safety was convened earlier this year.
The national roundtable discussed the potential of verification and identity checks by the dating sites to vet users.
“This approach could prove helpful for identifying underage users but is also fraught with issues regarding privacy.
“While dating sites state they do not want minors on their platforms, we would encourage recent efforts by online dating companies to actively take measures, such as continuous upgrading AI software to detect underage accounts by monitoring and reviewing certain words and phrases.
“However, the high levels of mobility among young internet users across various sites will make it difficult to manage – even with more regulation and controls.”
Tahlia Hart, from the Flinders University College of Business, Government and Law, is completing her doctoral research project entitled ‘Underaged and Digitally Engaged: Adolescent Use of Dating Apps.’
Acknowledgements: The research has been supported by the Australian Research Council (ARC) ‘Becoming Delinquent Online’ research project