Some millennials ditch dating app culture in favor of returning to ‘IRL’ connections

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(NEW YORK) — More than a decade since the launch of dating apps, they have become unavoidable players in the modern dating game.

In the U.S., 3 in 10 adults say they have used a dating site or app, and 1 in 10 partnered adults say they met their current significant other through a dating site or app, according to a 2022 Pew Research survey.

But some millennials are ditching dating app culture in favor of returning to what is known in internet speak as IRL, or “in real life.”

To get a clearer picture of what today’s singles are up against, ABC News’ Alex Perez sat down with four single people – CeeJaye, Alex, Kara and JT. The discussion participants asked not to use their last names because of privacy concerns.

“I’m in that generation of, I was born before the internet. I remember meeting someone off of an app or a chat room. You know, just any kind of online meeting was very, very risky and scary. So there’s certain things that I just pretty much prefer to do, you know, the in real life thing,” CeeJaye, 38, said.

Alex, who is queer, believes apps have a place for niche communities – including LGBTQ people who live in rural or religious communities.

“I came from a small town where it’s not the safest to be like going up to strangers and be like, ‘You’re hot, let’s go out,"” Alex, 30, said.

Kara, 34, says she entered the dating sphere when she was 27 after being in a relationship for the majority of her 20s.

“The apps was what everyone was on, so I was like, “OK, that’s what I got to do,"” Kara said.

While dating apps appear to offer a seemingly endless supply of potential dates, questions remain about their ability to spark long-term meaningful relationships over hookups and casual encounters.

“I did have someone who, you know, just pretty much thought because the first meeting was out to dinner and drinks that automatically greenlit them to, you know, be extremely flirtatious at a point where they were saying sexual things to me. And I mean, the minute that I was in my car, it was like, ‘block, delete,"” CeeJaye said.

Kara added, “Just like the normal – people coming right out of the gate after you match with them being really hypersexual, and it’s just like, oh yeah, no, absolutely not.”

“We’re at a place of burnout,” Alex said.

Dr. Jack Turban, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavior sciences at The University of California San Francisco, says many of the common concerns about dating apps are backed by research.

“The incentive for these apps are just for people to be on them a lot. So they’re not necessarily having their incentives align with people having better mental health, performing long-term, deep relationships,” Turban said.

Turban also points to the potential negative effects on users’ mental health.

“In the realm of behavioral addictions, we often think about slot machines as the classic example. And the reason slot machines are so addictive is that the rewards have come at unpredictable intervals. Some people have compared dating apps or hookup apps to that exact same thing,” Turban said.

“But the reinforcing thing you’re getting is either affirmation or orgasm or some sort of sex excitement. And we know that those stimuli are really, really rewarding. So it’s not surprising that sometimes people get really, really hooked on the apps,” Turban said.

Yet some singles are taking bold steps and swapping their swiping in favor of meeting in real life.

Katie Conway, founder of Chicago-based speed dating group “Hot Potato Hearts,” says the idea to start the group was born out of her own dissatisfaction with dating apps.

“They’re very disconnected. All you’re doing is like looking at people’s pictures and judging them, and that was not what I was looking for. I was like looking to just like, talk and connect with people,” Conway said.

Conway says her speed dating events seek to create a safe and inclusive community – one that’s not necessarily just for meeting significant others.

“Maybe I will meet someone to go on dates with, or maybe I’ll join a book club or learn about a new podcast or something. It’ll just be an intentional night of connecting with different people without any expectations of where it will go,” Conway said.

“Technology is great. It’s awesome. It’s super helpful in many ways, but it can never replace just like a one-on-one with somebody,” Conway said.

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