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Dating Apps Sued Over Addictive Features

It seems there is a pressing conversation echoing across the country. It concerns the potential need for more governmental regulations over social media

We are just three months into 2024, and already three events have occurred: 

  • Members of the U.S. Senate have clashed over how to update Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, created in 1996, to support the development of the Internet, which was still in its infancy stage.
  • The Supreme Court has begun considering whether a pair of laws focused on social media platforms and created after the events of January 6, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol, violate the First Amendment.
  • The Senate Judiciary Committee summoned the heads of Meta (Facebook), X (Twitter), and TikTok, among others, to discuss their role in keeping children safe online. At the hearing, leaders of the Big Tech companies were confronted by grieving parents whose children lost their lives to bullying or sexual exploitation on social media.
closeup of a young woman using her smartphone at a desk

And now, dating apps, including Tinder, Hinge, and The League, are under fire.

The Valentine’s Day Lawsuit

On February 14, a federal lawsuit was filed in San Francisco’s U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. Plaintiffs, including individuals from Florida, Georgia, New York, and California, allege that Match Group, the parent company of the dating apps, has violated state and federal consumer protection, false advertising, and defective design laws. The apps were designed to push users towards “compulsory, addictive habits”  to gain profit, the lawsuit says.

The plaintiffs allege that while advertising and marketing campaigns conjure up visions of successfully finding a romantic partner, in actuality, the apps are designed to encourage continuous use and swiping. The Match Group “affirmatively represents the platforms as effective tools for establishing off-app relationships while secretly doing everything in its power to capture and sustain paying subscribers and keep them on-app,” the lawsuit says.

According to the suit, this is done by using gaming imagery with all the bells and whistles paired against misleading slogans, including Hinge’s “Designed to be deleted.” Once the members settle in with a free membership, the Match Group focuses on its revenue stream, giving the user a chance to purchase more services – for a fee. 

The plaintiffs further allege that the Match Group’s use of “push notifications,” which notify users of what they missed while they were off the platform, “hook’’ users to stay on the app and can lead to addictive behavior. 

“Harnessing powerful technologies and hidden algorithms, Match intentionally designs the platforms with addictive, game-like design features, which lock users into a perpetually pay-to-play loop that prioritizes corporate profits over its marketing promises and customers’ relationship goals,” the lawsuit says.

The Inspiration of B.F. Skinner’s Pigeons for the Match Group

The lawsuit, which describes the apps’ features as “dopamine-manipulating,’’ also includes mention of an interview with Jonathan Badeen, the co-founder of Tinder, which was included in the 2018 HBO documentary “Swiped: Hooking Up in the Digital Age.” In the interview, Badeen discusses the research of renowned psychologist B.F. Skinner who led Project Pigeon in World War II, and how it influenced him.

For a time in the 1940s, Skinner attempted to train pigeons for use in guiding military missiles. He used an apparatus to train the birds to peck at a target, and the more they pecked, the more seed they received. However, eventually, Skinner discovered the birds would peck whether or not more seed was given.

While pigeons never guided missiles, Skinner was able to show how pigeons could be conditioned to continuously peck, seemingly believing a reward was on its way.

The lawsuit, which identifies Badeen as “the inventor of the swipe mechanic,’’  states that the Netflix interview is “a rare moment of candor” and Badeen laid “the truth, as Match sees it, bare.”

“Just as pigeons can be conditioned to peck at determinable intervals, so can users be conditioned to endlessly swipe. Match thus centered the addictive design of all the platforms around this psychologically addictive experiment,” the lawsuit states.

Similarities with Meta Lawsuits

Although the Match Group’s dating apps have a minimum age requirement for users to sign in as members, the lawsuit against them is similar to lawsuits filed by dozens of states on October 24, 2023. Those lawsuits contend Meta also violated consumer protection laws and have “harnessed powerful and unprecedented technologies to entice, engage, and ultimately ensnare youth and teens.”

Plaintiffs also contend Meta’s products have a “psychologically manipulative’’ design, and they allege that Meta “ignored the sweeping damage these platforms have caused to the mental and physical health of our nation’s youth.”

Are Meta and Match Group Taking Responsibility?

When the head of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, appeared in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on January 31, he spoke directly to the mothers and fathers who were in attendance and acknowledged there was a need for caution. No one should go through the things that your families have suffered and this is why we invest so much and we are going to continue doing industry-wide efforts to make sure no one has to go through the things your families have had to suffer,’’ he said. 

However, during the same meeting, Zuckerberg defended his industry to the committee members and reminded them that his company has invested more than $20 billion in safety and security since 2016. 

“Social media can provide significant positive benefits when young people use it to express themselves, explore and connect with others,” he told them.

The owners of the Match Group issued a statement to the media immediately after the plaintiffs filed their lawsuit. They described  the lawsuit as “ridiculous” and said it had “zero merit.”

“Our business model is not based on advertising or engagement metrics. We actively strive to get people on dates every day and off our apps. Anyone who states anything else doesn’t understand the purpose and mission of our entire industry,” the statement said.

The plaintiffs who filed the lawsuit against the Match Group are aiming for it to be given class-action status.