In moments of great anxiety, it is not uncommon for me to embark on late-night Grindr sessions. My fraught relationship with the ubiquitous gay dating app goes back several years, and doesn’t include a whole lot of actual dates, frankly. The endless grid of headless torsos and explicit usernames usually don’t want dates; they want “pics.” The whole exhausting experience often concludes with me staying up way too late on a weeknight, and uninstalling the app in shame.
But I keep coming back, addicted to the slot machine-like feel of the app, which LGBT researcher Jack Turban defines as the psychological concept of variable ratio enforcement. In his 2018 piece for Vox examining Grindr’s impact on the mental health of gay men, Turban says Grindr awards its users for clicking at unpredictable levels, and that’s one of the most effective ways to reinforce human behavior. In other words, Grindr works like a slot machine: once in a while you score, but more often, you fail — sending endless inquiries into the digital abyss.
Like many people, I have struggled with my mental wellbeing during the coronavirus pandemic. In a recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly half of Americans said the crisis has negatively impacted their mental health. Early on, I attempted to cure my quarantine despair with Grindr, despite the obvious futility of the endeavor. While I had no intentions of actually meeting up with strangers in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, I still logged onto the app religiously, looking for an escape from my loneliness. Of course, being unable to actually meet up with anybody only increased my feeling of isolation, worsening the vicious cycle.
Usually, these are topics I broach with my therapist, but on this week’s edition of “The Sports Kiki,” I spoke with Turban about the coronavirus’ impact on the mental health of young LGBT people, focusing on how it can result in destructive behavior online. Bereft of safe social spaces, studies show large percentages of young LGBT people are active on dating apps, despite not being legal in many cases. A study in the Journal of Adolescent Health suggests roughly one out of four gay and bisexual boys between the ages of 13-17 are on hookup apps like Grindr. Almost 70 percent of them are having sex with people, and only 25 percent of them are using condoms.
With popular dating apps such as Tinder and Hinge reporting surges in activity, it’s feasible dating app usage is also up in the LGBT community, especially with so many people isolated at home.
“People are more anxious, people are more depressed,” Turban says. “We know many LGBT people, when they’re feel anxious or depressed, often what they’re longing for is some sort of affirmation for their LGBT identity, because growing up they were told it was wrong. That really leaves psychological scars that a lot of people for decades might be searching for that affirmation, and Grindr seems like the place you might be able to get that. It’s full of other LGBT people. Presumably, they’re going to be affirmation of your LGBT identity. The problem is, it’s a very sexualized platform.”
It’s important to note some Grindr users say they enjoy a healthy relationship with the app. For his article, Turban spoke with a variety of active Grindr users, including one who met his fiancé there. But for others, the app can be a source of great duress. A survey of 2,000 iPhone users showed that 77 percent of Grindr users felt regret after logging on.
A recent NPR piece chronicles the mental health problems some LGBT young people are experiencing during the coronavirus, stuck at home with families and communities that may not be accepting. Calls to The Trevor Project’s crisis services line have sometimes increased to more than double the volumes from earlier this year.
With that in mind, it’s possible even more young LGBT people are seeking validation from dating apps, and that comes with risk. The FBI has issued a warning to parents that online sexual predators are currently more active than usual.
“The big problem is, as a society, we have not created enough safe spaces for LGBT young people to explore their gender and sexuality in a developmentally appropriate way,” Turban says. “As a young gay, lesbian or bisexual person, if you’re closeted, you’re probably not going to have a high school prom, you’re probably not going to have a classroom valentine. Because kids don’t have that place to explore, a lot of them go online. It feels safer and more discreet and more anonymous.”
For many kids, college is the first place where they can be comfortable with their sexual orientations and identities. Kicked off campus and back to the parents’ house, they may feel being online is the safest way to express themselves.
Even for those who aren’t struggling with their identities, the coronavirus quarantine can be an exceptionally isolating experience. Many LGBT people are closer to their chosen families than biological families, and it can hurt to not see them.
Stuck without in-person socialization, it can be tempting to turn to Grindr for some instant gratification. But as Turban reminds us, the gratification can be fleeting and empty — and that’s when you could meet up with strangers and not violate public health guidelines.
“At the end of the day, most of the pictures are shirtless torsos, and you can filter by sexual position,” he says. “It is a sexualized platform. So people go on and search for a deeper form of emotional affirmation, but what they get is sex — often — and then after sex that person leaves, and that can feel like rejection.”
Click here to check out this week’s edition of “The Sports Kiki Podcast”. You can also subscribe to the show on Apple’s Podcast page as well as on Google Podcasts, and wherever you’ll find Outsports podcasts.