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Maker of Tinder, Hinge sued over 'addictive' dating apps that put profits over love

Match Group, which owns dating apps including Tinder and Hinge, was sued on Wednesday in a suit claiming the apps are designed to hook users so the company to make more profit, rather than helping people find romantic partners.
Patrick Sison
Match Group, which owns dating apps including Tinder and Hinge, was sued on Wednesday in a suit claiming the apps are designed to hook users so the company to make more profit, rather than helping people find romantic partners.

The popular dating apps Tinder, Hinge and the League hook users with the promise of seemingly endless romantic matches in order to push people to pay money to continue their compulsive behavior, according to a federal lawsuit filed in San Francisco on Wednesday.

The suit, brought by six plaintiffs in states including New York, California and Florida, argues that dating app parent company Match Group gamifies the services "to transform users into gamblers locked in a search for psychological rewards that Match makes elusive on purpose."

While Hinge's advertising slogan boasts that it is "designed to be deleted," the lawsuit claims Match Group's dating apps are really designed to turn users into "addicts" who do not find true love and instead keep purchasing subscriptions and other paid perks to keep the publicly traded company's revenue flowing.

The complaint, which is seeking class action status, claims Match Group has violated state and federal consumer protection, false advertising and defective design laws.

"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," lawyers for the plaintiffs wrote in the suit.

Many popular dating apps, like Tinder and Hinge, are free to download and use, but paid subscriptions to premium features are required to have unlimited swipes, or access the most coveted singles on the app. For instance, users can spend $3.99 on Hinge to send a "rose" to a "standout" profile.

A Match Group spokesperson denied the allegations in the Valentine's Day lawsuit, saying it is "ridiculous and has zero merit."

The spokesperson continued: "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."

Studies indicate anywhere from 10%to nearly half of couples in the U.S. met through online dating.

Thanks to push notifications and other features attempting to keep users engaged, it can be difficult to put the apps down, which is intentional by design, according to the lawsuit, which claims the Match Group's dating apps are "intended to erode users' ability to disengage."

Such tactics are not specific to the world of online dating — most social media platforms employ notifications and features like an "infinite scroll," keeping people thumbing at their screens in a thoughtless and almost irresistible way.

The question the lawsuit poses is: Does Match Group have to disclose the potentially addictive quality of such commonplace design features? And have the company's lack of warnings constituted a violation of consumer protection laws?

The legal action against Match Group joins anew crop of lawsuits challenging tech companies, including Google, Instagram owner Meta and TikTok, in an attempt to hold platforms accountable for exacerbating the youth mental health crisis.

Since tech companies have broad immunity to lawsuits under a legal shield known as Section 230, the new slate of lawsuits are attacking tech firms under novel claims, including product liability and defective design.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs who sued Match on Wednesday cited journalist Nancy Jo Sales, who directed the documentary Swiped: Hooking Up in the Digital Age.

Tinder co-founder Jonathan Badeen told Jo Sales that the dating app's swiping feature was partially inspired by a famous experiment by behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner. In it, Skinner "turned pigeons into gamblers" by giving them food delivered at random intervals. But the pigeons believed their pecking prompted the food to appear, causing the birds to ceaselessly hammer away at their trays.

"Just as pigeons can be conditioned to peck at determinable intervals, so can users be conditioned to endlessly swipe," according to the lawsuit, which, among other remedies, asks the court to order Match to launch an advertising campaign revealing the addictive nature of the company's dating apps.

The suit references a 2020 studyon "ghosting" and "breadcrumbing," terms used to describe a dating app match who suddenly disappears or gives only intermittent attention.

"Users with unlimited swipes will chase the elusive high of matching, match more often, and fall victim to ghosting and breadcrumbing at higher rates," the suit claims.

This, in turn, significantly increases the likelihood of experiencing less satisfaction with life and having more feelings of loneliness and helplessness, the suit claims.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.