The startling connection between dating apps and online harassment – users almost twice as likely to be victims

Online harassment has become more severe over the years.1 The anonymity offered by the internet creates an environment where name-calling, belittling, and derisive comments have come to characterize how many view discourse online. In recent years, more severe forms of harassment, such as swatting, have started to become more commonplace, with some instances of harassment even resulting in fatalities.2 

As more social activities, like group hangouts, gaming, and even classes move online, it can be difficult for internet users to protect themselves from such attacks. Online dating is no exception. Dating apps generally require users to provide information such as a full name, gender, age, sexual orientation, pictures, location, and a phone number or email address, making them a trove of sensitive data.

With Valentine’s Day around the corner, Incogni’s research team decided to tackle dating apps and discovered that people who use them experience nearly twice as much online harassment, including a spike in swatting attacks. 

We took a dual approach this time, conducting a survey to gauge Americans’ experiences with online harassment and their usage of dating apps, as well as analyzing the data collection and sharing practices of some of the most well-known dating apps currently available.

Key insights

  • Nearly one in five internet users (19%) in the US have experienced at least one form of cyber abuse—with the most common being cyberbullying (40%), hate speech (31%), and trolling (30%).
  • Women were more affected than men by sexual harassment (36% vs 12%), online impersonation (33% vs 18%), and cyberstalking (24% vs 14%).
  • 37% of Americans are aware that their personal data is available online, with 76% aware of the link between exposed data and the facilitation of potential online abuse or harassment.
  • 36% of Americans currently using dating apps have suffered online abuse, almost twice as many as among the general American population. The most frequent types of harassment among dating-app users are cyberbullying and hate speech
  • The majority of dating apps (Facebook, Bumble, Hinge, Plenty of Fish, Coffee meets Bagel) collect information on sexual orientation and political and religious beliefs. Some also collect information on race and ethnicity.
  • All the apps share “other info,” which may include gender identity, date of birth, and veteran status.
  • The most sensitive shared data points include purchase history, shared by Bumble, and approximate location and apps, shared by Hinge, Plenty of Fish, Tinder, and BLK dating.
  • The majority of the investigated dating apps experienced data incidents, which included pictures of users being scraped and published online.

The data we analyzed

To help us determine the prevalence of online harassment, general levels of awareness around the issue, and its connection with personal data, Incogni’s researchers carried out a survey of 1,008 American adults. The responses were further broken down by age and gender to determine how those factors play a role.

In conjunction, our researchers also examined the most popular dating apps in an effort to understand the scope of their data collection and sharing practices and the potential risks involved in using them. Survey respondents with experience in using dating apps were also asked about their experiences with online harassment.

Taking into consideration that most survey respondents shared concerns about the connection between data exposure and the occurrence of online harassment, our research also covers data-breach analyses of the dating apps we looked at.

Online harassment survey results

The survey results provided an interesting perspective on Americans’ experiences with online harassment, the links they perceive between data collection and the occurrence of online harassment, and other contributing factors. Our researchers found significant differences by age and gender, though not always as may have been predicted or expected. 

According to our survey of US adults, nearly one in five internet users (19%) reported having been the victim of at least one form of cyber abuse. Interestingly, the percentage of men who reported cyber abuse was higher than women, 21% vs 17%, respectively.

The most common forms of online abuse or harassment our respondents experienced were cyberbullying (40%), hate speech (31%), and trolling (30%). There were no significant differences in the rate of occurrence between men and women for most of these, including cyberbullying, doxxing, swatting, trolling, hate speech, revenge porn, harassment in online gaming, and physical threats. However, women were more affected than men when it came to sexual harassment (36% vs 12%), online impersonation (33% vs 18%), and cyberstalking (24% vs 14%).

While the percentage of some of the most dangerous reported forms of online harassment, doxxing and swatting, are comparatively low (9% and 6%, respectively), they are worth noting as they can lead to physical harm. 

When it comes to awareness, 37% of respondents reported that they know what personal data is available online. Furthermore, 76% were aware of the link between data being available online and the facilitation of potential online abuse or harassment. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the youngest groups we surveyed (18–24 and 25–34 years), reported being aware of the availability of their data the most often (44% of respondents in their age groups), while those between 45 and 54 years reported being aware least often (28% of respondents in their age group).

However, when it comes to awareness of the connection between publicly available data and online abuse and harassment, the percentage went up steadily with age. This implies that, while younger Americans may be more aware of what data is collected, older Americans are more concerned about the potential consequences.

68% of respondents selected oversharing personal information as a reason for falling victim to cyber abuse or cybercrime, with a significantly higher percentage of women sharing this opinion than men (70% vs 64%, respectively).

62% indicated that online abuse and cybercrime may be the result of online scams, phishing attacks, or social engineering being used to manipulate individuals into giving away their information.

52% of respondents blamed weak passwords and 51% reported it might also be due to a lack of cybersecurity awareness.

Dating apps and cyber abuse

Having gathered a general understanding of online harassment, we entered dating apps into the equation to understand what kind of impact they can potentially have on online harassment.

To do this, we first looked at our respondents’ experience with dating apps. 78% reported having some experience with dating apps, 13% are currently using dating apps and 65% said they have used them in the past

The frequency of cyber abuse experienced by dating-app users suggests their concerns may not be unfounded. Our researchers found that the respondents who currently use dating apps experience nearly twice as much online harassment as the general population (36% vs 19%), a statistically significant difference. 

The most common types of crimes dating-app users reported experiencing are cyberbullying (37%) and hate speech (30%). They also experienced more frequent trolling and sexual harassment, both experienced by 24% of those using dating apps.

Again, the occurrence of swatting remains comparatively low but was notably higher among users of dating apps (15%) when compared to the general population (6%). This could mean dating apps expose users to much higher risks of physical harm. 

Popular dating apps

As there seems to be some correlation between the use of dating apps and an increased rate of cyber abuse, our researchers investigated the data collection and sharing practices of some of the most common dating apps. To provide a good representation of which apps users end up turning to while dating online, we looked at the top 9 dating apps identified by Forbes.3 

It’s worth noting that Facebook dating is only available through the Facebook app, meaning that some data the app discloses collecting and sharing might not be strictly relevant to the dating functionality.

Data collection and sharing

For the 9 apps we investigated, the average number of data points collected was 20. Facebook collects the most data at 37 data points and Feels – dating & friends collects the least at only 3 data points. 

Facebook collects data including contacts, calendars, files and docs, voice recordings, videos and photos, SMS and emails, fitness and health info, credit score, sexual orientation, and political and religious beliefs. 

Bumble, Hinge, Plenty of Fish, and Coffee Meets Bagel all collect information on race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, and political and religious beliefs. Tinder and BLK Dating also collect sexual orientation. 

It should be noted that all of the apps collect other data, which could include gender identity, date of birth, or veteran status.4 

Also worth noting is that many apps allow users not to provide certain data points. Over half of the data points collected by Facebook are optional (a total of 24/37), for example. 

Hinge allows the users to not disclose 8 out of 21 data points. If the user does not provide this data to the app, Hinge ends up collecting fewer data points than Plenty of Fish, Tinder, and happn (assuming the user discloses as little as possible to them as well). 

Plenty of Fish and Coffee Meets Bagel also allow for a notable exclusion of 7 data points (from 21 and 17, respectively). Bumble, Tinder, happn, and BLK Dating each have 6 optional data points, while Feels has no optional data points.

Even more concerning than the data they collect, the dating apps we investigated share 7 data points each, on average. It’s also noteworthy that there’s a significant range, with 4 apps sharing 9 or more data points, while 2 apps claim to share none.

Tinder is the most generous, sharing half of the data it collects, meaning a whopping 10 data points reach third parties. Tied for second place, we see Hinge, Plenty of Fish, and BLK Dating with 9 data points shared by each. These are followed by happn with 6 data points shared and Facebook with 5 data points. Coffee Meets Bagel and Feels claim to not share any data points. 

The most sensitive types of data being shared are purchase history, shared by Bumble, and approximate location and apps, shared by Hinge, Plenty of Fish, Tinder, and BLK Dating. Happn also shares approximate location, while Coffee Meets Bagel and Feels both claim not to share any info.

Purposes

Along with what information they collect and share, Google Play requires developers to disclose the reasons for sharing this data. While common purposes such as fraud prevention and account management are reasonable, users may want to watch out for the data these apps share for things like marketing.

The dating apps we investigated share the greatest portion of the data they collect for the purpose of fraud prevention (which was 58% of all purposes cited). Advertising and marketing was the second-most cited purpose (28% of all purposes).

Given that advertising or marketing is a common purpose, our researchers took a deeper look into which data points apps share for this reason. 

  • Happn shares approximate location for advertising, being the only app to give out user location (precise or approximate) for such a purpose.
  • Bumble and happn share user email addresses.
  • Bumble and happn also share other personal information. This is a broad category but can include things like date of birth, gender identity, and veteran status
  • Bumble, Tinder, Hinge, Plenty of Fish, and BLK Dating share app interactions, which can include a broad range of things such as gameplay in games or user likes in platforms where “liking” is an option, essentially encompassing user activity in the app

Data incidents

Where sensitive information such as financial information, sexual orientation, and political and religious beliefs are involved, data security can be an area of concern for users. To gain a general understanding of how big of a concern this may be, our researchers looked for instances of that data being mishandled, leaked, or otherwise affecting service users. 

In no particular order, we found that:

  • Bumble had left an unsecured database exposed to anyone who could find it. Seemingly, no user data was accessed before the issue was discovered, but data like users’ physical characteristics, location, and education information were exposed for at least 7 months.
  • Tinder saw the pictures of around 16,000 users scraped and made available on a cybercrime forum. A total of approximately 70,000 photos were gathered and made available online in late 2019. 
  • Coffee Meets Bagel issued a statement in 2019 that some user data was accessed by an unauthorized party. Details are scarce for this event, but the company claims no sensitive data was affected.
  • Facebook, not specifically Facebook Dating, has been subject to many data-related incidents, some resulting in fines for data mishandling. Notably, the user data of those active on the platform between 2018 and 2019 was accessed by an unauthorized party and later leaked online in 2021.
  • Plenty of Fish received a report from a white-hat hacker in 2019 that information designated as “hidden” was publically accessible by other users on the platform. Hidden data could have included things like users’ zip codes. It’s not known whether this was abused by nefarious actors. 

Conclusions

The consequences of online harassment aren’t limited to the digital world. They can extend to the mental and emotional well-being of the victims, often leading to anxiety, depression, and an overall sense of vulnerability. In some cases, extreme forms of online harassment, such as swatting, can even put lives at risk. 

With our research indicating that the rates of online harassment nearly double while using dating apps, it’s essential for users to choose carefully, taking into consideration the app’s data collection and sharing practices. Apps that collect a lot of data, even if they share very little, can still pose a significant risk due to the prevalence of security incidents. 

The nature of dating apps requires users to give up a lot of personal information. Things like sexual orientation, location, and photos are all but essential to how they function. That being said, users should exercise their best judgment when it comes to sharing optional data with these apps and the strangers they encounter there. 

Methodology

Our research team conducted the survey using the Cint platform. We surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,008 adults residing in the United States. The quotas on age, gender, and place of residence are based on US demographic data. 

Data was collected January 15 – 19, 2024.

Regarding the app analysis, we identified some of the most well-known dating apps based on a ranking by Forbes. On January 29, 2024, the research team then collected information about these apps from the Google Play Store, noting what user information the selected apps collected and shared and for what purposes. 

It’s important to note that Facebook dating is only available through the Facebook app, meaning that some data the app discloses collecting and sharing might not be strictly relevant to the dating functionality.

For detailed information used in this study, visit our public dataset

Sources

  1. Pew Research Center. “The State of Online Harassment.” Published January 13, 2021. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2021/01/13/the-state-of-online-harassment/
  2. CNN. “An Ohio gamer gets prison time over a ‘swatting’ call that led to a man’s death.” Updated September 14, 2019. https://edition.cnn.com/2019/09/14/us/swatting-sentence-casey-viner/index.html
  3. Forbes. “Best Dating Apps Of 2024, According To Research.” Accessed January 29, 2024. https://www.forbes.com/health/dating/best-dating-apps/
  4. Google Console Help. “Provide information for Google Play’s Data safety section.” Accessed February 5, 2024. https://support.google.com/googleplay/android-developer/answer/10787469?sjid=9053211159761541022-EU

Visuals

We welcome the reuse of our images if proper attribution is given to Incogni. The charts, graphs, and tables used in this research can seamlessly embed into your website. Use the menu that appears at the top right of the visual when you hover over it with your mouse. When embedded, these visuals maintain their interactivity and preserve their original quality.

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