As we head back into cuffing season, for some, time spent on dating apps may ramp up. And while there's nothing wrong with this per se – with it a "necessary evil" – ensuring we use them cautiously, matters.
But how can we guarantee 100% safety? Aside from limiting our time on them to preserve our wellbeing, and avoiding obvious creeps and weirdos (for lack of a better word), we currently don't know for sure that everyone is who they say they are.
Looking at Gen Z alone, some 49% have been victims of sextortion catfishing crimes, 90% have had to make changes to their everyday life because of this, and 74% feel it has impacted their physical safety, according to studies by The Cyber Helpline.
To help combat this, Body Proud, in collaboration with the helpline, launched the Don't Fall for the Smooth Talk campaign, which involved setting up a profile of a duck to show how easy it is to create a 'fake' account and start interacting with users. It has called for all dating platforms [including Hinge, Bumble and Tinder] to "unite and implement mandatory profile verification at the profile creation stage, as well as notifying users when they are engaging with an unverified profile".
So, what do you think? Should there be a mandatory profile verification? Here we consult the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy (BACP)-registered relationships counsellor, Lisa Spitz, on the answer to this, as well as how to navigate online dating safely and preserve our mental health.
How can online dating negatively affect our wellbeing?
"The impacts on our mental health when we are catfished, for example, are significant as it leaves us feeling people aren’t trustworthy, we question their motivation, our worthiness and are left with a general insecurity about why we were targeted," explains Spitz, adding: "we can also experience feelings of shame and embarrassment that we were misled, leading to signs of anxiety and depression."
This suggests just how important mandatory profile verification could be, to prevent these serious long-term effects.
"Online dating is an interesting phenomenon in that some 65% of people meet online, yet most users are left feeling that it is a brutal and often futile experience," Spitz adds. "The impact of going on multiple dates with the 'wrong' people can lead to feelings of despondency and despair. We can feel like our partner is not out there or is out of reach."
How can crimes like sextortion impact our wellbeing?
The Metropolitan Police describes 'sextortion' as a form of blackmail, explaining, "It involves threatening to publish sexual information, photos or videos about someone. This may be to extort money or to force the victim to do something against their will. Photos or recordings are often made without the victim realising or consenting.
"Criminals often target people through dating apps, social media, webcams or pornography sites. They may use a fake identity to befriend you online and then threaten to send images to your family and friends."
As we might imagine, Spitz explains this can also cause feelings of humiliation, shame, embarrassment and judgement as private pictures or activities never intended to be shared publicly can spread worldwide – though it is never the individual's fault.
But, again, the knock on effect can be even bigger. "These feelings can lead to depression and anxiety, as well as a loss of trust in people in general and potential partners. To see the impact of this, the Georgia Harrison documentary is excellent."
How can people navigate online dating healthily?
"I think online dating is a necessary evil and that attitude is important," says Spitz. "We are detached about the people we see online, they don’t feel real. It’s like looking in a catalogue and potentially gorging ourselves at the opportunities. I think online dating should always be attached with a pinch of salt. It’s an opportunity to go on a bunch of dates with a variety of people you might not have otherwise met."
"It shouldn’t be seen, however, as the only way to meet people. And don’t go on dates wondering if this is 'the one' as the disappointment can be crushing. Online dating requires resilience and should be fun and playful, a chance to practice flirting. I believe you should always be truthful about what you’re looking for."
That said, Spitz is aware it can leave some with feelings of despair and despondency, with endless dates chipping away at self-esteem. "If you’ve been in the unfortunate experience of being catfished or even the date has looked nothing like their photos, then allow yourself to feel your potential feelings of anger, despair, hurt, sadness and upset and take a step back," she urges.
"Don’t carry on dating, take a moment to acknowledge the impact and process the feelings. If you're still struggling and it's brought up feelings that you’d previously not processed then always seek professional help."
What are key safety tips for online dating?
With October being Cyber Security Awareness Month, it's a great time to reassess how you're using dating apps. While many have positive experiences with online dating, the basic rules of safety to be aware of, Spitz advises, are:
Don’t give your exact location, job or family situation away until you know them better
Always meet in a crowded place and make your own way there and back
Always tell a friend
Potentially have a check-in call arranged to make sure you’re ok and send a friend a location notification so they can track you
Never give away passwords or access financial information with your date
Remember these people are strangers until you know them better
Should dating app profiles have mandatory profile verification?
Now for the big question. "I think there is a strong case for verification but like most things, there will always be people that find a way around it if so determined," says Spitz. So, if for whatever reason mandatory isn't possible, she suggests pushing for it by advertising things like 'our members get more likes/dates when they have a mandatory profile verification'.
"This would make sure, mostly, that people look like their photos and the chance of going on a date with someone that looks nothing like their profile is reduced. That way there is less chance of disappointment if you actually meet," says Spitz.
Spitz believes users should definitely be notified when engaging with an unverified profile, just to make sure they are aware of the risks. "There's nothing more disheartening than going on a date expecting to meet someone and they look nothing like their photos. For good or bad, people start engaging with people because they like the way people look, then you start conversations, and then if you like that you might meet," she muses.
And, as well as extra measures shielding people from catfishing or sextortion, she adds, "If I went on a date with someone that didn’t look like their photo it’s an immediate turn off. I think if they’ve lied about this what else have they lied about? I recognise it can come from a place of insecurity but I personally feel that the person posting old photos where they no longer look like that is going to be even more insecure because they’ve now been rejected for their looks.
"Surely it's better to post an accurate photo of you so the right people will find you and your chances of success are improved?"
Yahoo Life UK has reached out to Hinge, Bumble and Tinder.
Read more: 'Breadcrumbing': Dangers of the dating trend more than a third of us have experienced (Yahoo Life UK, 8-min read)
Read more: This is the biggest red flag for dates according to 80% of Brits (Yahoo Life UK, 8-min read)
Read more: Sexual health doctor reveals the six questions you should ask a new partner (Yahoo Life UK, 6-min read)
Watch: Having a cat in your dating profile makes you more attractive