Lighthouse co-founder Nick Fager talks about how hookup app culture can be toxic and harmful to your health — but it doesn’t have to be.
Hookup apps have revolutionized our culture: they have dramatically increased the pool of dating options, helped LGBTQ people form communities, and have lessened the isolation inherent to being a sexual minority. Best of all, they allow us to have the sex we want with the people we want. But even as apps offer potential for exploration and positive change, they can easily give way to unhealthy behavior. Hookup apps have been shown to be addictive, anxiety-provoking, and ultimately, alienating.
But that’s not to say you should delete all of your hookup apps from your iPhone right this minute.
Sex apps can be healthy and liberating as long as we know our boundaries and are comfortable enforcing them. Just like a couple negotiating an open relationship, it’s important to have an honest conversation with yourself before going on apps about what you want and where you draw the line.
When we engage with the apps in safe, intentional ways, we’re able to lessen our dependence on them and get our needs met in healthy ways. Let’s look at a few of the easiest ways to stay healthy while getting off online.
1. Limit Your Exposure
Hookup apps can serve as a great way to meet people you might never encounter in real life. But when you spend hours swiping through hundreds of carefully curated pictures and sassy bios, and aren’t engaging in real-world activities, it’s easy to develop an addiction.
Daily use of Grindr has increased 33 percent over the past three years. A typical Grindr user spends two hours per day on the app — more time than most people spend exercising or eating. That kind of obsession can be dangerous, so try limiting yourself to a half hour per day. You can set a timer on your phone, establish a set time when you go online, or even delete the app off your phone and re-download it during prescribed usage times.
It’s also important to set boundaries, such as no apps for the hour after you wake up and the hour before you go to bed. In fact, studies have shown that using screens (tablets, computers, smartphones) before bed suppresses Melatonin and negatively impacts your quality of sleep.
2. Learn to Say No
Because apps like Grindr have become, more or less, a digital cruising space, they allow for endless sexual exploration for many gay or bi men. But this doesn’t mean you have to hook up with everyone you talk to or try every kink that someone proposes. Trust your gut. It is perfectly okay to engage in conversation with someone on Grindr, even to the point of wanting to hook up, but then decide that you just aren’t in the mood.
You’ll also receive offers for other activities besides sex, such as drugs. It is crucially important to be aware of your boundaries when it comes to these activities and feel comfortable enforcing them before engaging on hookup apps.
If your gut tells you to say no, say no. If that no is met with anger or confrontation instead of understanding, block them.
3. Don’t Use Apps for Emotional Regulation
Whenever we’re feeling depressed, overwhelmed, or have low self esteem, it can be tempting to turn to apps for validation, or as a distraction from real-world problems. But using apps as a quick fix can lead to a pattern of avoidance in which we don’t confront the situation or the person that’s upsetting us. In turn, opportunities for growth and deepening relationships fall by the wayside, and we ultimately become more isolated.
Before you open up the apps, ask yourself if there’s a more direct way to deal with what you’re feeling. The direct route is usually harder in the moment, but it’s better for your mental health in the long run.
4. Turn Off Notifications
It’s very important to be in control when it comes to your app usage, and when your phone is constantly lighting up with woofs and message alerts, it’s very easy to lose control and become addicted.
Studies have shown that humans react to positive social media stimuli (such as likes, favorites, messages, or “superlikes”) in ways similar to how the brain responds to addictive substances — with a dopamine “high”. It’s easy for the brain to begin to crave affirmation through hookup apps, but this addiction can be unproductive — constantly swiping and scrolling, messaging and liking, is ultimately a shallow method of connecting with others.
What’s more, studies have also shown that push notifications reduce concentration and increase error during tasks. Go to work, watch a movie, and hang out with friends without the constant distraction of hookup app notifications. Turning off notifications puts you in control, as opposed to the phone dictating your emotional responses.
5. Protect Your Heart
It’s important to maintain a safe emotional distance from the people you encounter on hookup apps — at least during the preliminary stages of chatting and leading up to your first IRL meetup. We’ve all been on the receiving end of a cold-hearted insult and rejection on apps, which usually has nothing to do with us but nevertheless hurts. Remember that you are messaging with a representation of a person, not someone with whom you are already intimate. That person could be using fake photos, could be completely different in real life, or could even pose a potential risk to your safety.
Go into conversations knowing that while this person *could* be the best sex of your life, it could also be a douche bag with photoshop or anger management issues. Keep a healthy distance until you’ve established some trust and have made in-person contact.
6. Don’t Spiral When Someone Flakes
If someone flakes, stops responding, or says something negative, it’s easy to go straight into compensation mode — we’re horny, frustrated, and can quickly head into an all-out spiral. Our sense of urgency overrules our normal judgment and can lead us into precarious situations with people we aren’t even that attracted to. If it doesn’t work out, accept that it’s not in the cards at that moment. Get yourself off and call it a day.
7. Dig Deep, Not Wide
If you’re spending multiple hours a day typing out “nm, just bored at home,” “into?” or “looking?” to 30 different strangers, you’ll end up engaged in diluted conversations with every person you encounter — in turn limiting the potential for a meaningful encounter or relationship. Carrying on that many conversations is also mentally draining and stress-inducing.
Studies show that while an abundance of choice seems appealing to most people, in reality, it ends up being debilitating, stressful, and often results in an inability to make any choice at all. Hookup app culture fuels this idea — why settle for one guy when there are thirty others within 250 feet?
Instead of casting an impossibly wide net, give yourself a chance to connect with a few select people before moving onto the next. You never know what it could turn into if you give someone your full attention.
8. Scrap Your Checklist
Because hookup apps let you filter potential interests by hundreds of different criteria, I see many people become too picky about finding the “perfect” man. The reality is, some of the best connections happen with people that aren’t our exact type. If you’re looking for a relationship, most of us fall in love with people who don’t necessarily check off every box. Studies have even shown that individuals’ preferences for a romantic partner predict how much they like descriptions of people, but not how much they actually like people after meeting them.
Be open to considering guys who might not be 6’2’’ with washboard abs. You may be surprised by what you find with your filters turned off.
Engage With Your Apps In Healthy Ways
Be intentional with hookup apps, and don’t let them run your life.
And if you start to feel that hookup apps are negatively impacting your mental health, don’t be shy about reaching out to a gay-friendly therapist near you who understands what you’re going through. At Lighthouse, we work to connect patients with knowledgeable, LGBTQ-affirming healthcare professionals. Our rapidly expanding network of doctors and therapists is experienced, thoroughly vetted, and invested in the health of the LGBTQ population.