Serious man using smartphone on sofa at night.

SINGAPORE: Dating applications have become a breeding ground for adult predators seeking contact with vulnerable youths under 18, raising concerns about the safety measures implemented by these platforms. Despite the age restriction set at 18 and older, predators find ways to exploit the system, putting minors on dating apps at risk of sexual crimes.

In an investigation conducted by CNA, journalists created profiles on popular dating apps such as OkCupid, Grindr, and Tinder, posing as individuals aged 18. After initiating conversations, they disclosed their real age, some below 16, only to discover that several adults persisted in making explicit sexual propositions to the minors.

Christine, a 15-year-old posing as 18 on OkCupid, engaging in a conversation with a 49-year-old named Gary. Despite revealing her true age, Gary’s explicit messages continued.

“I should call you baby then dear. U ever had an older bf dear?”- Gary’s message with kiss mark emojis, unaware Christine was a 15-year-old persona.

This unsettling encounter is just one of the many stories uncovered by CNA journalists who went undercover on dating apps.

It’s not just an isolated incident. The investigation uncovered multiple instances where adults persisted even after learning they were talking to underage teens. The issue is not confined to Singapore alone, the issue of predators preying on minors on dating apps has plagued other countries as well.

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The issue of minors falling victim to sexual offences through dating apps has not gone unnoticed by authorities. In 2021, Member of Parliament Lim Biow Chuan (PAP-Mountbatten)  raised concerns in parliament, urging the government to take action against technology companies that fail to prevent minors from accessing such sites. He stated, “I felt that if we don’t do anything to protect our vulnerable minors, they are likely to gain access to these websites easily, and in that process, they will be taken advantage of. My hope was that the government would introduce a law to make sure that technology companies take action to prevent minors from accessing such sites.”

Age Verification Challenges on Dating Apps

CNA reached out to OkCupid, Tinder, and Grindr to understand their age verification measures and efforts to safeguard minors. While OKCupid did not respond, the other two apps, Tinder and Grindr, asserted that their platforms are exclusively for adults aged 18 and above, however, the effectiveness of age verification remains questionable. Users can easily falsify their age during the sign-up process, allowing minors to slip through undetected.

A Tinder spokesperson, in response to the investigation, says their app uses “a network of industry-leading automated and manual moderation and review tools, systems and processes” to ensure the app does not have minors in it.

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The app employs automated and manual moderation tools, including photo and ID verification, to detect and remove minors. Recently, Tinder introduced enhanced ID verification in Australia and New Zealand, requiring users to submit a video selfie along with a valid ID. The trial “plans to take the learnings from this pilot”.

Grindr, catering predominantly to the LGBTQ+ community, takes a distinctive approach. While it blocks accounts of users below the age of consent, it does not mandate profile photos or picture ID uploads. Grindr’s emphasis on user privacy, particularly in countries with anti-LGBTQ+ laws, explains this decision. The spokesperson said, “Since the founding of Grindr, many of our users have had very real needs to maintain privacy and discretion on the app, ranging from highly personal circumstances to government persecution in more than 60 countries around the world where it is tragically still illegal to be a member of the LGBTQ+ community.”

The Grindr spokesperson added that they are always willing to team up with Google and Apple on developing a better age-gating technology to improve safety while respecting the user’s privacy.

Despite the safety measures, one user shared her experience of easily signing up on dating apps below the age of 18. Ms Li, now age 23, admitted to falsifying her age when she was 17, encountering no obstacles in accessing multiple dating platforms. The lack of stringent age verification poses a significant challenge in keeping minors away from these potentially harmful environments.

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Psychological Vulnerability of Minors on Dating Apps

Experts emphasise the psychological vulnerability of youths on dating apps, where the quest for attention and validation exposes them to potential exploitation.

“Your heart is already very open. You’re seeking, you want attention, you’re looking for a partner, you’re looking to fill certain voids,” said Chong Ee Jay, Cyber Wellness Expert at Focus on the Family Singapore.

Cyber wellness experts and educators call for greater accountability from app providers, suggesting penalties for platforms hosting underage users. Education on digital literacy remains crucial, but the complex nature of adolescents’ psychological development requires a multifaceted approach.

As the investigation provides the persistent challenges in curbing predatory behaviour on dating apps, questions remain regarding the efficacy of current safety measures. The responsibility falls on both app providers and parents to create a secure online environment for youths. The disturbing reality of minors engaging with adult predators on these platforms underscores the urgency for comprehensive solutions to protect the most vulnerable users. /TISG