The Teens Slipping Through the Cracks on Dating Apps

Although these platforms say they are doing what they can to keep kids under 18 off, they aren’t succeeding.

illustration of a phone displaying a heart and resting in the center of a trap
The Atlantic; Getty

When dating apps started becoming popular in the early 2010s, many people feared that seeking romance on the internet might be dangerous. Since then, online dating has become a normal part of how adults find new relationships. Still, one uncomfortable aspect of these apps remains mostly unaddressed: the ease with which underage users can create profiles and risk being preyed on by adults. I would know; I was one of them. I found my way to Grindr at 16, chatted with older men, and later met my first boyfriend, who was in his early 20s, when I was just 17. In my reporting, I’ve come to realize not only how common this type of experience is but also how ineffective apps have been at preventing minors from joining.

Most popular dating apps (including Tinder, Hinge, Bumble, Grindr, Scruff, Jack’d, and Her) mandate that users be at least 18 to join. ​​When signing up, users must provide their birthday or link a social-media profile that includes their date of birth. But they are not required to provide any proof of their age; Facebook and Instagram, which they may connect to their online-dating account, also don’t ask for evidence of a user’s age. Stopping someone from lying about their birthday is virtually impossible, and other safeguards appear to be minimal at best. Anyone who says that they’re 18 or older is free to start adding photos, customizing a profile, and connecting with other users—mostly adults—in their area.

The exact number of minors who secretly make profiles is hard to quantify, but estimations exist. According to a Northwestern University study published in 2018, more than 50 percent of sexually active gay and bisexual underage boys have had sex with people they met on apps such as Grindr.

“Use of our app by anyone under the age of consent in their country is a violation of our terms of service and we block/shut down accounts for anyone who violates those terms,” Patrick Lenihan, Grindr’s vice president of communications, told me via email. “We would love partnership, specifically from Apple and Google, to develop better age gate technology that respects the privacy of users while also enhancing safety.” A representative for Bumble shared that the company uses “automated and live verification procedures” to block users under 18 and prevent them from rejoining, but apart from saying that the app employs a team of content moderators, the representative did not specify what those procedures were. A spokesperson for Match Group, which owns several dating apps, including Tinder and Hinge, said that the company uses “technology including AI” to search for suspicious language “that indicates a user may be underage,” though the spokesperson did not share how the search process worked or what type of language that might encompass. Her, Scruff, and Jack’d failed to respond to multiple requests for comment. (Scruff and Jack’d are owned by Perry Street Software, which also did not respond to a request for comment.)

To some, having minors on dating apps might seem harmless. Many young people start accounts hoping to find other people around their age. Queer teens in particular sometimes come searching for a sense of community that they can’t find at home. But these apps are made for adults, some of whom are too eager to meet someone so young. I spoke with three young people who said they online-dated while under 18, easily lying about their age to create profiles. Though their experiences differed, our conversations painted a concerning picture of a process in which they sought romantic validation and exploration but instead wound up feeling used.

For example, an 18-year-old living in Anaheim, California, who requested anonymity to protect his privacy, told me that he joined Grindr when he was 16 to explore his sexuality and connect with other queer teens. He specified in his profile that he was in high school, but he says he still found himself sorting through messages from older men wanting to meet. When he first hooked up with someone from an app at 16 or 17, he didn’t ask their age but guessed that the man was in his mid-20s. Similarly, Ellie, a 19-year-old based in California who requested to be referred to by her first name only to protect her privacy, was just 15 years old when she made her first profiles on Tinder and Bumble. She quickly found that “a lot of guys” were into how young she was. She said she met up with a number of college-age men and ultimately felt taken advantage of.

Tristien Nguyen, a 19-year-old gay man, who started a Grindr account at age 15, summed up the situation bluntly: “I only met up with creeps, I only talked to creeps, and it changed my viewpoint on older people in my community.” He felt deeply unsettled that so many men were willing to meet up after learning his true age. “Some of them were old enough to be my grandpa,” he told me about the people who messaged him. Nguyen’s profile was flagged and taken down several times, but each time he found that making a new one was easy.

Although dating apps say they are doing what they can to keep minors off, they aren’t succeeding. And when these platforms fail to prevent minors from joining, they also fail to protect them from potential predators. Data on the possible harms these apps can pose to minors are sparse because many cases of sexual assault and statutory rape never reach the police, but the existing investigations are troubling. The GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting found that from 2015 to 2021, more than 100 men—including police officers, teachers, and priests—were charged in the United States with crimes related to sexually assaulting minors or attempting to engage in a sexual act with a minor through Grindr. (In a statement to GBH, a spokesperson for Grindr said that the app is “susceptible to misuse and bad actors” and that Grindr “strictly prohibits any interactions with or use of its platform by minors, exploitation or solicitation of any kind, impersonation, and other forms of illicit or inappropriate conduct.”) Similarly, the United Kingdom’s Sunday Times has reported that, from 2015 to 2019, there were at least 30 cases of child rape and 60 cases of children being otherwise sexually exploited on dating apps in the U.K. (Both Tinder and Grindr emphasized their efforts to keep minors off their platform in statements to The Sunday Times.)

Governments have started to take notice of reports like these. After the Sunday Times investigation, then–Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright said that he would be writing to Tinder and Grindr to investigate their age-verification processes. Meanwhile, the United States House Oversight and Reform subcommittee on economic and consumer policy initiated an investigation in 2020 into Bumble, Match Group, Grindr, and the Meet Group (which operates several dating apps), focused on the companies’ processes for verifying ages, protecting minors, and responding to reports of assault, among other issues. But results from both inquiries have yet to be made public.

The question of how a more rigorous age-verification process would ideally work on the apps is a surprisingly tricky one. Currently they rely on teams of content moderators and artificial intelligence to detect suspicious profiles, as well as reports of underage accounts from their own users. Augustin Chaintreau, a computer-science professor at Columbia University and the director of the university’s Mobile Social Lab, describes this system as cheap and ineffective; it may make signing up easy, but it does not do enough to protect children. Requiring users to provide an ID when they register is one obvious solution. But, according to Jonathan Mayer, a computer-science and public-affairs professor at Princeton and a former technology adviser to then-Senator Kamala Harris, a process like this would be expensive for the companies and a hassle for users. Not everyone has a form of identification, and giving a private company access to millions of users’ IDs poses potential privacy and security problems. Another option would be verifying users’ identity through their credit card—though such a proposal might not succeed; Congress has unsuccessfully attempted to mandate credit-card-based age verification for websites with sexually explicit content twice.

Preventing all teens from meeting people they find on the internet would be impossible, says Lorin LaFave, who founded an organization to educate young people about online safety after her son Breck was murdered by an 18-year-old man he met on the internet. But individuals and companies can do better. When we spoke, LaFave recommended education and open discussion about healthy online relationships from parents. Chaintreau advocated for government-ID-based verification to keep minors off adult dating apps, despite the privacy trade-offs of such a system.

Looking back on my experience as a minor on Grindr, I have mixed feelings about being so young on an app meant for adults. Part of me is happy that I met so many people during a time when I felt alone. I had recently come out and, beyond Grindr, I didn’t have any queer people to process my feelings with. However, another part of me regrets that I was so eager to grow up. My life before these apps was filled with a lot less self-loathing, which was induced by the harsh comments Grindr users made about my appearance. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about how I communicate, how I should be treated, and how to navigate online spaces. I wish I’d started that journey when I was less impressionable, though, and I hope that teens in the future will be better protected than I was. Dating apps need more in-depth screenings to ensure that vulnerable minors don’t find their way onto the platforms—even if such processes come at the expense of growing the number of users. Kids deserve better protection than this.