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Davis, California

Friday, April 12, 2024

Emotionally Swiped

App-driven hook-up culture and mental health 

One of my favorite images on the internet is of a small, white and grey shorthair cat looking solemnly into a sea of one of America’s favorite foods: the humble hotdog. The text that accompanies it reads: “I have finally gathered all the hot dogs, yet I still feel empty inside.” 

The image is funny in a high school sort of way, and when I show it to friends, I am met with puzzled looks and forced chuckles. Yet, there is no better picture to express what the Wild West of online hookup culture can really be like.

In the historical context of Western civilization, casually “hooking up” has been frowned upon at best and a societal alienator at worst. Of course, this is considering what has shaped culture up until the middle of the 20th century — namely Abrahamic religion, conservative politics and an embrace of traditional European values. Starting in the swinging 1960s and peace and love 1970s, a shift in hook-up culture perceptions occurred. Maybe it was okay to just… sleep around? Perhaps a hedonistic approach to things wasn’t so bad after all.

Spike that line of thinking with psychedelics, hallucinogens, wacky tabacky and all other kinds of stimulants, and things began to blur. People were experimenting with casual sex openly, stopped using buzzwords for their private bits and even held swinger parties! Especially on college campuses, it seemed as if things were finally starting to get interesting. 

Fast forward to those same campuses 40 to 50 years later, and many things have changed. For one, we no longer have Reagan as president (thank God). Another thing is the explosive shift from conversative physical relationships to ones that are more open, promiscuous and, in some ways, liberating. Nothing has pushed this proliferation more than the rise of the apps, ones where users swipe away at a hope of meeting someone. 

I remember the first time I downloaded Tinder. I didn’t receive many matches; this was around my junior year of highschool, before The Great Glow-Up. The matches I did receive, however, brought a sense of validation like nothing I had previously experienced. To a neurotic young Jew who embraced the void, the very notion that there were women who were interested in me seemed absurd. Unbelievable, even. Yet, here they were, on a six-inch screen, exchanging GIFs and chatting about whatever came to mind. 

This feeling of instant validation became addicting, not just for myself, but for many others. Tinder has about 50 million users, more than the populations of Texas and New York combined. Bumble is at 40 million, and Grindr trails at a still impressive 3.5 million users. The statistics speak for themselves: People, particularly college students, have become more inclined to dip their toes in the waters of app-driven hook-up culture. Speaking to myriad students at UC Davis, they all had two things in common: stories about how the apps and the culture around them affected their mental health, and the request to remain anonymous. 

A student majoring in neurobiology, physiology and behavior cast doubts on the system.  

“Hook up culture kind of made me feel like I was expected to be sleeping around, but for a while, I wasn’t,” the student said. “That stressed me out.”

 It’s interesting to see how college students see themselves in the context of this environment — one where physical intimacy is casual and emotional intimacy is arguably reduced. 

“It made me think I wasn’t performing to my standards, so overall I would say it was negative for me mentally,” the student continued.

Creating an environment where intimacy can come so casually is beautiful in many ways, but some students may feel like something is wrong when they decide to opt out of that. 

At the beginning of Fall Quarter, I spotted a student representative for Tinder doing whatever a student representative for Tinder is assigned to do on a daily basis. Since I was late for class, I promptly ignored them. But as the person a few steps behind me was approached by the representative, the last thing I heard them say before going out of earshot was, “Now is the time! You’ll never be hotter!”

This is something that has stayed with me, not just for it’s ridiculousness, but also for the underlying message: Apps have a way of convincing you that you need them now, even though there is often no rush. 

“I just think it gamifies meeting people,” one design major said. “And nothing can be worse than that, honestly. Like how many points am I going to score with this person? How far will I get? It becomes this game, and I just couldn’t keep doing that.” 

Indeed, the act of swiping, the short-lived simulation of playing God in a romantic sense, is not only exhausting, but seems to reduce people to little more than tiles on a screen. 

  After a lengthy morning of investigating, it was my last chat that stayed with me the most. The student, a psychology major, said that they actually had no problem with apps, nor the extreme ease of meeting someone and being physical. 

“I don’t see a problem with it if you’re being safe and healthy, in like every sense of the word, physically and emotionally,” the student said. “But […] it seems as if most people aren’t, at least emotionally. We’re so young, meeting people organically should be like, the easiest it’ll ever be. It just seems like with these things, the apps, that a lot of people aren’t equipped for it. Maybe just people in general aren’t equipped for it.”

If you use these apps and enjoy yourself, more power to you. If you’ve even found something great within them, all the better. But it seems that in many cases, the average college student has a high chance of negatively impacting their mental health with the fast and loose nature of these apps. Everything in moderation, of course, but the next time you swipe, perhaps think about yourself in the long-term well-being. After all, how will you feel after you finally gather all the hot dogs? Hopefully better than our feline friend — unconvinced and uncertain. 

Written by: Ilya Shrayber — arts@theaggie.org

The names of students who spoke about their romantic lives have been omitted in order to protect their identities.


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