Study: Some kids are already using online dating apps at age 11

Most online dating apps have a minimum age requirement of 18 years, but a new study shows that a small number of 11 to 12 year-olds are using them. — AFP Relaxnews

US and Canadian researchers have been studying the use of dating sites by minors, and have observed that some preteens, particularly those aged 11 and 12, are already using these platforms or applications to find love. Their findings raise questions about the risks associated with such use.

While most dating applications require users to be over 18 to register, a new study by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco and the University of Toronto – among others – reveals that children and preteens aged 11 and 12 are already surfing these sites to find love.

This research raises questions not only about the motivations of these young users, but also about the need to make them aware of the risks associated with the omnipresence of adults on these platforms.

To reach these conclusions, the authors analysed cross-sectional data from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study, the largest study of children's brain development and health in the US. The researchers analysed data from 10,157 adolescents, mostly aged 11 to 12, whose data were collected between 2018 and 2020. Among the questions asked, some concerned their use of online dating apps and their sexual orientation.

Finding love without being judged

Published in the journal BMC Research Notes, this research reveals that dating sites are indeed used by pre-adolescents aged 11 and 12. Note, however, that they are a tiny minority – 0.4% of the total sample studied. The researchers point out that lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) preteens are 13 times more likely to turn to this type of platform to find love than heterosexual preteens. According to the authors of the study, this may be due to their difficulty in talking openly about their sexual orientation, and their fear of being harassed or stigmatised as a result.

“Dating apps may allow adolescents to easily identify other LGB users in close geographic proximity, whereas it may be more difficult to determine a potential partner’s sexual orientation in real life,” says lead author Jason Nagata, MD, associate professor of paediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, quoted in a news release.

From cyberbullying to grooming and exploitation

The study also reports that boys are three times more likely to report online dating than girls. “Preteen boys are more likely than girls to report that social media made them feel more connected with their significant other. Prior research has found that half of boys reported that social media made them feel more emotionally connected with their significant other, compared to 37% of girls,” says coauthor Kyle T. Ganson, PhD, of the University of Toronto.

While it's clear that dating sites can be advantageous for pre-adolescent boys and girls who find it more difficult to meet a partner, or at least a crush, in real life, they are not without danger for these young users.

As the researchers explain, the users concerned expose themselves to the rest of the community present on these dating sites, and therefore to adults, and even more specifically to “cyberbullying, grooming, exploitation, privacy violations, and the exchanging of inappropriate content”.

These serious consequences mean that parents need to talk to their children about these sites and their use of them, and make them aware of all the risks involved. Parents should consider establishing rules of use or monitoring this type of practice. – AFP Relaxnews

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