The murder trial of Gable Tostee received media attention around the world, with many stories focussing on the fact that he and Warriena Wright met on Tinder before she fell to her death from his apartment balcony on the Gold Coast in 2014.
The question is whether headlines like this one from the New York Post — Chilling last selfies before Tinder date turned deadly — reflect legitimate safety concerns, or whether dating apps are just another means of meeting strangers, no different to a bar or a club.
Are fears about Tinder founded?
Dr Lauren Rosewarne, a social commentator from the University of Melbourne, says internet-date horror stories get disproportionate media attention.
They tap into existing fears harboured by the audience, but they occur infrequently,” she said.
She says there’s still this idea that the internet is “a kind of badlands” and that “only losers or those with criminal intent go online to meet people”.
That’s despite the fact that people have been using the internet to date for decades.
It’s just a reflection of real life. And in real life, nobody does a background check on a person met in a bar,” she said.
There are a number of dating apps on the market — including happn, Hinge and Grindr — but Tinder is the most prominent. In 2015, one in 10 single Australians aged 18-24 were using it, according to Roy Morgan Research.
Dr Rosewarne says because hook-up apps are such a common way of meeting people, the chances are therefore very high that victims or perpetrators of crimes will have used them.
But cyber safety expert Susan McLean says there are real differences between using dating apps and meeting people at bars or clubs.
What makes Tinder dates different?
Ms McLean says one difference is that you can’t read someone’s body language on Tinder and get an instinctual sense of who they are:
If someone was dodgy at a nightclub, you could easily walk away, but you’ve got to get further down the path when you’ve only ever engaged with them online,” she said.
She says people don’t tend to go out on their own, whereas Tinder dates are usually one-on-one. As well, people tend to hang out at bars and clubs with like-minded people, whereas Tinder connects you with people you never would have connected with otherwise.
Ms McLean says people need to be aware of the real dangers:
There’s certainly been plenty of cases of people that have been abused and assaulted after meeting on these sorts of apps,” she said.
She says there have also been examples of stalkers showing up at people’s homes and work places.
Can Tinder be used safely?
Ms McLean says while dating apps can be dangerous, it’s partly about how you use them.
She points to the fact that the way that Tinder is used has changed over time:
“Initially it was pitched as a hook-up app: ‘I like the look of you, hey, we’re both free, let’s meet for sex.’ That’s essentially what Tinder started as.
“There is still that element on Tinder, but it has moved to a more mainstream dating app. My daughter has got a couple of friends that met on Tinder, they’re getting married.
“… There are certainly nice people on Tinder, and there are certainly people that do the background checks, meet in the coffee shop first, and suss it all out.”
Dr Rosewarne says the same care needs to be taken on dating apps as in the offline world, and that there’s no need to be “exceedingly paranoid”:
In exactly the same way that precautions should be taken when handing out a phone number to a man met at the laundromat or in the library, we shouldn’t be any more cavalier with using Tinder.
What are some precautions that can be taken?
These are some of the precautions that Tinder itself suggests that you take:
Hold off sharing personal details like your full name, phone number, email or address until you are comfortable enough with someone
Get to know someone before meeting them in person
Always meet in public
Tell friends or family members about your plans
Don’t get into the car of someone you don’t know or trust, particularly on the first meeting