SINGAPORE: In her Tinder profile photo, "Rachel" sticks her tongue out playfully at the camera, and has a floral wreath digitally superimposed atop her long, wavy hair. Her profile says she is 18 years old.
A click on the photo reveals the truth - in her Tinder bio, Rachel states she is just 14.
A check of the popular US-based dating app shows she is not alone. Using the profile of a 21-year-old male, Channel NewsAsia saw more than 30 profiles of girls in Singapore who wrote that they were below 18 in their biographies, even though their official profile age was above that. Some said they were as young as 14.
Many of them revealed the schools they attend, and some had profile photos of themselves dressed in school uniforms. A few also revealed personal details like their full name, and their accounts on other social media platforms like Snapchat and Instagram.
Polytechnic student "Jasmine" told Channel NewsAsia she joined Tinder when she was 16 as her friends and classmates were also using the app. “I thought it would be fun to see my classmates and maybe even my lecturers on it,” she said. “My parents didn’t know.”
“I faked my age on Facebook years ago so I could get a profile before I turned 13. But Tinder took my age from Facebook and set it for me,” she explained. In order to join Tinder, users must link their Facebook account to the app. The app will then generate a user’s age based on how old they are on their Facebook profile.
She added that she did not state her real age on her Tinder profile, but would reveal it to the men who messaged her. “Some replied and some didn’t.”
Jasmine described her experience as “smooth and fun”, but said this may not have been the case for some of her friends. "Many of my friends tell me that a lot of guys ask them for hook-ups. When one of my friends told a guy she was under 18, he still persisted. But this has not happened to me before,” she said, adding that she has since deleted the app.
A Tinder spokesperson told Channel NewsAsia that there are security measures in place to help verify the authenticity of each user's information. While Tinder does allow users age 13 to 17 to join, these users can only connect with other users in that same age range on Tinder. This means they would not be able to view or interact with users aged 18 and above.
“If we learn that a user has lied about their age in order to interact with users outside of their appropriate age group, we delete their profile immediately,” added the spokesperson.
But as Jasmine’s experience shows, faking one’s age on Tinder can be done as simply as changing one’s age on Facebook.
“YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE”
The appeal of dating apps like Tinder lies in how quickly and easily they can be used to develop new relationships, according to Dr Carol Balhetchet, senior director of Youth Services at the Singapore Children’s Society. “It’s fast, and you can craft your picture to make yourself look more attractive than how you are in person,” she said.
“You also do away with all the social graces, and the awkwardness of meeting someone for the first time.”
The app itself has also generated a lot of buzz overseas, which has made teenagers here keen to try it out for themselves, added Mr Chong Ee Jay, manager of non-profit agency TOUCH Cyber Wellness.
He added that his agency recently conducted a straw poll of more than 300 teenagers aged 16 to 18 from junior colleges and polytechnics, and found that almost all of them had heard of Tinder.
About 36 per cent of them had also been on Tinder as an adult user.
“When we asked them why not try the version of Tinder for 13- to 17-year-olds, the typical teenager response was ‘you only live once’”, added Mr Chong, who is also a member of the Media Literacy Council.
“They wanted to experience life as an adult, which is why they ventured onto the other platform.”
A handful of them were also in it for the thrill, he added. “Tinder has a reputation for being a ‘hookup app’, and there were inappropriate things happening on the app, so they wanted to get in on it.
“Some of the boys also used it as a platform to look at ‘sexy women’."
BREAKING THE LAW
The risks are many. Mr Chong added that girls below the age of 18 could be opening themselves up to challenging relationships, and in extreme cases, molestation or even rape.
“I usually tell teenagers that when you look at the photograph, you can never be sure it is that very same person. You never know until you meet the person in reality,” he said.
“And once you meet that person, things could go terribly wrong.”
Male users above the age of 18 could fall foul of the law if they have sex with an underage girl they met on Tinder.
“Men really need not just consent, but informed consent,” said Professor Ang Peng Hwa from the Nanyang Technological University’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information. Informed consent means that someone’s age must be confirmed rather than taking what they claim at face value.
“I think that was the message that was intended to be sent out when we had the prosecution of men who engaged underage prostitutes.”
“I’m cautious with the girls I talk to,” said 19-year-old Hao Ran, who has been using Tinder for two years. “If she’s a minor, it would probably just remain at friends and nothing more.”
He added that the underage girls he sees usually put their real age on their biography, so he knows to steer clear.
But others say they have been matched with girls on Tinder who later turned out to be underage.
“I once matched a girl who I thought was 18, but she was actually 15,” said 21-year-old "Khai", who did not want to give his full name. “I try my best to make sure the person I’m meeting is real and obviously of a certain age.
“It’s not my preference to go for younger girls, and even if they were to ask me to meet up, I would turn them down because I think I’d rather they focus on their homework, while I spend my time talking to someone around my age.”
(Additional reporting by Alicia Tantriady.)