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Are Dating Apps In The Era Of Coronavirus Even Worth It?

How young people and platforms alike are adjusting to the new normal

A few days after Shelby Monaghan, an actor in Los Angeles, matched with a new guy on Bumble, her roommate put her on the spot.

Calling it an “important quarantine love story,” Los Angeles Times reporter Amy Kaufman chronicled how Monaghan’s match, a chef named Wes, began wooing her in the era of social distancing. One night, he ordered her food from Gjusta, the restaurant he worked at, and followed that with a delivery of margarita ingredients. Their FaceTimes escalated into visits between windows and screen doors.

By the time the margaritas arrived, Kaufman knew this was something special. “I was like ... ‘Whoa, this dude is obsessed with you,’” she told MTV News. “It seemed extreme to me that a guy she had just been talking with over the phone was already going to such lengths to impress her.”

But neither Monaghan nor Wes had the option to date traditionally: She had only joined Bumble after California imposed social distancing restrictions across the state, to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus, and matched with Wes a few days later. “I had no intention to meet up with anybody with this all going on,” she told MTV News. “But I was like, well at least I can talk to people throughout my day.” It’s been three and a half weeks since Monaghan and Wes first matched, and they’re still finding ways to connect — and even visit each other — while maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet between them at all times.

”For many reasons, this relationship is unexpected, but I think the main one [is] because I really wasn't expecting anything to come from it,” she said.

Whether out of boredom or as a tactic to stave off the looming urge to text an ex, more people are swiping — and interacting online. Bumble alone has seen a 26 percent spike in messages sent on its app, a spokesperson told MTV News. And even if users don’t meet up with anyone physically in the time of social distancing, that isn’t so different from the way they used these apps a few months ago. In an August 2019 survey of people aged 18–29 conducted by MTV Insights and MTV News, 54 percent of respondents indicated they “like messaging with people on dating apps more than” they actually like going on dates, and 33 percent said their usual swiping habits consisted of talking to people but never meeting in person. Another study published by LendEDU in 2017 found that 70 percent of college-aged respondents with Tinder accounts had never met a single person with whom they’d matched on the app.

“A nice element of dating apps is that you can choose your own adventure,” Nona Willis Aronowitz, the sex and dating advice columnist at Teen Vogue, told MTV News. “It’s like, maybe you’re lonely, maybe you’re horny, maybe all of those things. You just want to forge a connection.” According to the MTV Insights study, many users’ adventure is simply the search for instant gratification — 61 percent of respondents said they were more interested in discovering people who were attracted to them than going out with anyone at all.

There once were plenty of reasons people might keep their digital connections on a pixelated basis, ranging from busy work schedules and other life obligations to physical safety — 70 percent of respondents said they were concerned about the inherent “stranger danger” of meeting a stranger IRL. Now, that evasion from actually meeting someone new, let alone hooking up with them, comes doctor-recommended, as the coronavirus pandemic spreads across the world. There are ways to protect both yourself and others from possible vectors, like Wes and Monaghan’s carefulness to also wear masks when they see each other:  “We're both like, all right, we're really doing this. And we know the reward is going to be really great because we've been so on top of it,” she said. But even an abundance of caution, and rightful worries about infecting strangers, hasn’t stopped people from logging on.

Seeking A Friend For The End Of Self-Quarantine

The first dating website was introduced in the mid-’90s; apps like Grindr followed in 2009. And while people of all ages are on dating apps, young people may be more likely to use them as tools for nonsexual connection, Willis Aronowitz said. Like Monaghan, Caitlin*, an attorney in San Francisco, turned to Hinge in an effort to fill her day with the kind of small interactions she felt she had lost as a result of California’s social distancing mandates. “Right now it’s nice to be able to talk to someone who isn’t my roommate, family, friends, or coworkers,” she told MTV News. “On a normal day, I’m out in the world talking to people, whether it’s someone I met at a bar or just making small talk with the barista. So talking on the apps fills that void.” She hasn’t been swiping more than she would have in prior months, but she has been “less selective” about connecting with people who “like” her.

Zach*, a writer in New York City, agreed. He’s been swiping more on Tinder and Grindr out of boredom. “But the idea of matching with someone and chatting during this time seems like a great distraction and positivity in these dark times,” he told MTV News.

And as Brent*, who also lives in New York City, pointed out, the pandemic serves as a built-in conversation-starter. “Social distancing is generally the thing my matches and I are talking about,” he said. “It’s become a weird bonding element, since it’s one of those rare moments in society that we’re all experiencing something together. It’s become its own form of small talk, but it’s also uniquely personal, given how it’s impacted our daily lives.”

While social distancing, which suggests that people stay home as much as they can, might be a new conversation starter, doctors warn that strict quarantines can have adverse effects on people’s emotional and mental health, and multiple studies have found that people with strong relationships even tend to live longer than their isolated counterparts. As a result, more and more people are logging onto video chats with friends and family for everything from birthday parties to karaoke. And no matter how big or small your friend circle is, people are still craving connections with those outside their usual crews. “There’s something special about connecting with someone new,” Zach said. “And with these apps, we’re able to do that during quarantine; we can socially distance but not socially isolate.”

Chelsea*, a marketing manager in Illinois, isn’t averse to a prolonged period of communication with someone she matches with, in part because it’s something she’s navigated before. “I was in a long-distance relationship for two years and all we had was digital communication, especially when we first started talking,” she told MTV News. That relationship has since ended, but she remembers that even when they visited each other regularly, they would still put a premium on digital conversations. She’s since applied that mentality to her online dating experience. “Talking to someone for a while is good, and gives you the opportunity to look forward to an actual date,” she said.

The Platforms Are Playing Their Part

The apps themselves have gotten the memo that more people than ever are increasingly online, and they’re shifting both their messaging and products accordingly: In-app corporate messages from at least three platforms have stressed the need for social distancing and provided resources for users’ coronavirus-related questions. Feeld allows people to set their location to “quarantine,” and Tinder took down the paywall on its global swipe feature.

There’s also the advent of in-app phone and video calls, which are generally safer because they don’t require users to give strangers their phone numbers or Zoom handles. Bumble first unveiled its FaceTime-like features in June 2019; the app saw a 93 percent increase in the service between March 13–27, and both audio and video calls averaged 30 minutes in length. “We’re experiencing a major lifestyle change at the moment, and we’re focused on helping our users shift the dating app experience to an in-app dating experience,” a spokesperson said.

Amanda Bradford, the founder and CEO of The League, also noticed a 112 percent spike in in-app video calls, beginning the week of March 18, when the platform formally launched its speed-dating concept, League Live. While in-app video is also available to swipers, the gamified version matches users for three two-minute video sessions on Wednesday and Sunday nights, which Bradford said is just long enough for people to determine whether or not they want to continue talking to a match. The company had previously soft-launched in select markets in December 2019 but decided to accelerate rollout in the wake of social-distancing protocols.

“It seems like that’s going to be the way people are going to date in, at least the foreseeable future, if not the rest of the [pandemic’s] duration,” Bradford told MTV News. “It’s basically as close as you can get to a date without actually having to leave your house or get off the couch.”

While suddenly having an insider’s look at someone’s living room can feel a bit reminiscent of the Chatroulette days of yore, keeping video calls in-app also provides users the ability to report people on the other line. Bradford stressed that The League will enforce “quick and brutal repercussions” to anyone that violates their terms of service, but every app takes different levels of action, especially with regard to offenses that happen offline or outside of the app’s database.

Julie Spira, an online dating coach and the author of The Perils of Cyber-Dating: Confessions of a Hopeful Romantic Looking for Love Online, stressed taking baby steps when it comes to digital dating — though she definitely recommends keeping things in-app so that the platform can both monitor and be held accountable to taking action against people who violate their terms. “I would not just hop on a video date until you’ve chatted, or even gotten on the phone to hear the sound of someone’s voice,” she told MTV News. “And pay attention to what someone is writing. There are some people who are saying, ‘Hey, I’d still love to meet up with you. I promise to be good.’ They’re not practicing safety at a very crucial time. So maybe they aren’t the right one for you.”

Emotionally Logged On

While plenty of people make and invest in friendships with people through the internet, and never meet in person, dating is often a different kind of connection. Some people navigated socially distant walks or even food exchanges, like Wes and Monaghan, but others might be wary of offers to meet IRL. “A lot of my conversations end after the dude suggests we ‘get drunk and break quarantine,’” before meeting or even FaceTiming,” Kaufman said. “I know how rare it is for a dude to go above-and-beyond in the way Wes is.”

And while Zach admits the implied wait time before meeting a person digitally and actually meeting them can be “a test of our attention span, for sure,” he’s hopeful that a forced “pen pal situation can perhaps build something so that, when you finally meet in-person, it can feel more special than just another first date.”

Spira also recommends keeping a first video date short and sweet — 10 to 20 minutes maximum — and being generous with the block button. “We have the power to push the delete button or stop a video chat before it starts to get creepy,” she said. “If anybody is badly behaved, swipe left, report, get rid of them.”

According to a YouGov/MTV News poll, the majority of Gen Zers say that if they were dating, they would go on a first date via video chat. Older generations aren’t quite as likely to be comfortable: Just 38 percent of millennials, 36 percent of Gen Xers, and 23 percent of baby boomers would agree to a video first date, the poll showed. That young people are more open isn’t surprising: Most millennials and members of Gen Z prefer texting to voice calls, and overall usage of video apps like Zoom and FaceTime have gone way up during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Under normal circumstances, I’m pretty FaceTime-averse,” Nikita*, who lives in New York City, told MTV News, adding that it can feel like both “too much too soon” and “a micro-step in between” matching and meeting. But in the era of social distancing, she thinks video calls can serve as a very temporary solve:  “I don’t think that video chatting can be a substitute for in-person interaction for very long without establishing a real-life rapport,” she said.

Experts don’t yet know how long people will need to abide by widespread social distancing recommendations, or if there will be future waves of such efforts. So for now, tele-dating (and its evil twin, the Zoom breakup) can easily feel like the only option for people who don’t want to put their romantic lives on hold — and that goes for both new matches and some established couples, who may not be quarantined together and don’t want to risk contagion.

I Love Me... With Or Without A Partner

The alternative is to focus on self-love, in ways that both include and go beyond the viral memo by New York City’s Department of Health that stressed “you are your safest sex partner.” According to Willis Aronowitz, while some people might crave sex and initimacy in the face of widespread chaos, others might shy away from it entirely. “A pandemic is not usually the moment in which people are trusting other people,” she said. “I don’t want to seem like, ‘This is actually a great opportunity for us to flirt with each other,’” because some people might not be on that page.

Instead, Willis Aronowitz called this moment “a good time to check in with yourself and be kind to yourself. Focus on your own needs and your own desires, rather than trying to impress somebody or succumb to pressure. If you feel that way on dating apps, I would just take a break.”

For that reason, Camille*, who lives in New York City, has actually been swiping less since the pandemic began to accelerate. “Living in a major city can be particularly isolating, even before we were encouraged to social distance,” she said. “For many people, dating apps and social media are their only connections to the external world.” As a result, she’s found that a lot of her matches seem “a bit stir crazy and looking to kill time” rather than forge meaningful connections.

“Part of me dreams of finding my prince or princess charming, falling in love through our screens, and living a happily post-quarantine ever after,” she added. Even so, she misses the opportunity to go on a first date with someone she thinks is cute, and she’s looking forward to the day she can connect with her matches out in the open. “Nothing,” she added, “beats making out and eating fries.”

*Names have been obscured, omitted, or changed to protect privacy.

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