Tip of iceberg: Dating apps in Belgium failing to protect people from violence

Tip of iceberg: Dating apps in Belgium failing to protect people from violence
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Belgium's most popular dating apps should improve their safety policies and services for victims of sexual violence, as they are contributing to this phenomenon, a recent study showed.

Dating apps are increasingly helping people across the world to find a partner, however, they also play a role in online and offline dating violence. Helplijn 1712 (a helpline for questions about violence, abuse and child abuse) received at least 50 calls this year about violence, ranging from revenge porn to date rape, in which a dating app played a role in the contact between perpetrator and victim.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg because not every victim or bystander indicates that the dating app facilitated the violence through feelings of guilt shame and fear of a disapproving reaction from the environment," said Wim Van de Voorde, Flemish coordinator of helpline 1712.

The fact that violence facilitated by dating apps is a widespread problem has previously been confirmed by international research, with one Australian study showing almost three in four users of an online dating app or website experienced online violence in the past five years.

Issues coming to light

A study by Helplijn 1712 (a helpline for questions about violence, abuse and child abuse) and researchers at University Colleges Leuven-Limburg (UCLL) Centre of Expertise Resilient People examined five popular dating apps against a number of criteria, including how they address and prevent violence.

"Most dating apps have guidelines on what can and cannot be done on the app and deploy algorithms and artificial intelligence to keep out certain forms of violence," said Anne Groenen, in charge of UCLL expertise centre Resilient People. "With Bumble, for example, you sometimes receive a warning if you are sent a nude photo."

While most apps allowed victims to report violence, the report stressed that it is "usually unclear what steps the app takes next," and what steps victims can take when a perpetrator has deleted their own account or when the victim is blocked.

Researchers also analysed other criteria, such as how easy it is to create a fake profile. In Belgium, the number of people falling victim to scams via online dating apps is increasing, mainly as they create new opportunities for people who want to commit violence online or offline anonymously. Many victims who called 1712, said the perpetrator first won their trust with a fake profile.

Last year, 42-year-old David Polfliet was lured to a park by a group of teenagers under the pretence of a date arranged using the gay dating app Grindr, which resulted in his murder.

Scientists also noted that the apps are not transparent in how they handle this personal data. "Previous research has shown that dating apps do not adequately protect personal data. Especially in times when we see a manifest rise in digital stalking, this is a gap in the available apps," said Groenen.

Regulations and awareness-raising

Groenen argued that, due to the lack of cooperation from some dating apps, and the limited duration of the study, a number of questions still remain unanswered. These include how many reports of violence they receive and whether there is a customer service that refers victims to local support services.

"Further research is needed to get a clear picture of violence facilitated by dating apps and how these apps deal with violence. There is no doubt that there is still much room for improvement," she said.

Both organisations call for better regulation of dating apps, as there is currently no EU regulation for dating apps, meaning apps largely determine their own safety policies.

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" I fully agree that dating apps can still firmly improve their safety policies. Therefore, I will also alert my European colleagues to this study on dating apps," said Hilde Crevits, Flemish Minister for Welfare, Public Health and Family.

Flemish Justice Minister Zuhal Demir noted that social media and (dating) apps have, for too long, "been a playground for sexual predators to stalk and attack their prey all too easily," and added that raising awareness of such issues via various initiatives is one of the main pillars of the region's action plan against sexual violence.

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