Sexual-health conversations: Is online dating creating an avenue for abuse?

By Anastasia Climan, RDN, CD-N | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published February 14, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Dating apps are popular among your patients, but many who use them experience some form of harassment.

  • Relationship expectations begin to develop in early childhood—neglect and domestic violence at home can set the stage for destructive cycles that may continue into adulthood.

  • Healthcare providers can ask their patients about social factors, like online dating, and screen for signs of abuse. Patients must be encouraged to protect themselves from dating violence and seek help if they feel threatened.

Dating apps have skyrocketed to one of the most popular places to search for romance. Unfortunately, these platforms also come with a high risk of various forms of abuse. Some estimates report that problematic and harmful interactions on dating apps plague 57% to 88% of users.[] 

As looking for love online continues to be the norm, healthcare providers can foster open communication about their patients’ sexual health, screening for signs of potential harassment or abuse related to their online dating practices.

How some use technology for harm

The dangers of engaging with online dating networks are constantly evolving, as are the legislation and other safeguards meant to protect online daters. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), various forms of abusive behavior are possible through online dating apps, such as sharing (or threatening to share) intimate photos and videos.[] These images may have been intended for the recipient only, or in other cases, they may have been stolen without consent through hacking.

Deceiving others by pretending to be someone else is called catfishing. Catfishing is a strategy cybercriminals may use to start romantic relationships or solicit money. Cyberbullying and cyberstalking are other means of intimidating and harassing someone from an online dating profile. 

Other examples of harassment include taking pictures or videos without consent and sending explicit or threatening content. It can be challenging to draw the line between what’s acceptable and what’s unacceptable when it comes to online dating, but greater awareness and resources can help shut down disturbing behavior before it escalates.

Patients at risk for domestic violence

Sexual harassment can happen to anyone. However, certain factors increase the chances of engaging in abusive relationships. 

Researchers reporting in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence state that relationship expectations begin to develop in early childhood.[] Neglect and domestic violence at home can set the stage for destructive cycles that may continue in adulthood. Studies also show that young adults raised in single-parent households are statistically more likely to engage in risky behaviors such as smoking, sexual intercourse, alcohol use, and weapons-related violence.

Despite gender stereotypes, several studies indicate that males have a greater chance of becoming victims of physical dating violence than females. However, females in abusive relationships are more likely to sustain injuries.

Warning signs of abuse

Online daters who are facing harassment or abuse may exhibit some of the following signs:[]

  • Anxiety

  • Depression, sadness, lack of energy and motivation

  • Drug or alcohol use

  • Self-harm, suicide attempts, or suicide ideation

  • Sexually transmitted infections

  • Visible signs of abuse

Online harassment can also impact sleep and eating habits. While healthcare providers shouldn’t assume every problem is related to dating, it doesn’t hurt to ask, especially when you have concerns. If you know your patients use online dating apps, you can familiarize them with RAINN. This resource allows anyone to chat with a trained professional should any issues arise following face-to-face interactions with people who were introduced online.

Safer strategies to share with patients

Prevention is always the best medicine, whether it’s toxic relationships or any other health concern.

RAINN offers useful advice, applicable to you and your patients, on how to protect against negative online dating experiences. Dating apps come with features to report and block abusive communications, for example. Users should be encouraged to protect themselves online by waiting to divulge identifying information (where they work, where they live) and by only moving forward at a pace that is comfortable for them. 

It’s best to avoid saving passwords on your web browser and to log out after using social media apps. It’s also a good idea to keep the webcam on your computer covered with a sticker when not in use to prevent hackers from spying on you through your device.

Googling yourself periodically to manage and remove any identifying information can also help keep others from tracking you down. When using a dating app, take fresh pictures that aren’t on your other social media profiles so it’s harder for others to find your accounts without your consent.

The usual aim of online dating is to find someone to eventually connect with in person. Although this always comes with some risk, video chatting before agreeing to meet up can help weed out catfishers and establish that the person is who they claim to be.[] Always let a friend know where you’re going and who you plan to meet. Meet up in a public place, and have your own transportation separate from your date.

In addition, public health initiatives to teach participants how to improve communication skills, manage anger, and resolve conflicts may help prevent dating violence. The National Sexual Assault Hotline is available for those who need help: 800-656-HOPE (4673). 

What this means for you

Clinicians should be in tune with the different ways their patients may be vulnerable to harassment and dating violence. The increasing popularity of online dating comes with new risks, affecting men and women of different ages. Asking about these issues and readily offering resources can help keep patients from suffering in silence.

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