Let’s admit it. Online dating can be a challenge.

Yes, it’s quite easy to download one of the many available mobile dating apps on your smartphone. But then comes the task of creating a personal profile that often includes writing a brief personal bio and selecting that one photo you want other dating app users to see.

That profile – especially the photo – is often the first thing members of your prospective pool of romantic or sexual partners will view and use to decide whether or not they will court you. And you might do the same to them.

For the many men I have spoken to regarding their experiences on dating apps, one’s physical appearance unfortunately holds a lot of weight to their success in finding a match. Don’t fit certain body image ideals and you can expect a bombardment of unwanted and hurtful body-shaming comments from other users.

These discussions, which were a part of a previous qualitative research project, inspired our recent paper, which investigated the association between dating app use and various unhealthy weight control behaviors, which are often considered precursors to eating disorders.

My colleagues at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and I examined data on a sample of US adults enrolled in the Harvard Chan Physical Activity study who completed an online survey assessing their dating app use and their engagement in six unhealthy weight control behaviors:

  • Vomiting for weight control
  • Fasting for weight control
  • Laxative use
  • Diet pill use
  • Use of anabolic steroids
  • Use of muscle-building supplements

We found that out of the 1,726 adults in the study, 183 women and 209 men used dating apps. Compared to non-users, dating app users had substantially elevated odds of all six unhealthy weight control behaviors compared. These findings were supported by additional gender-stratified analyses among women and men.

Our cross-sectional study, however, does not allow us to draw conclusions about the direction of the observed association between dating app use and unhealthy weight control behaviors. It is quite possible these individuals were already engaging in these behaviors before using dating apps. Regardless, given their image- and appearance-focused nature, it is possible dating apps could exacerbate these unhealthy weight control behaviors.

That’s a question for future research studies to answer. Given the tremendous growth in dating app usage worldwide and the severity of eating disorders, we hope such questions are answered soon so preventative measures can be taken.