In New York, the epicenter of the COVID-19 epidemic in the United States, the city’s health department published a set of directives entitled “Sex and coronavirus disease”. Official advice: “You are your safest sexual partner.”
Dating is quite difficult at best. Add government directives like this, as well as nationwide social distancing warrants and a highly contagious virus for which there is no cure or vaccine, and you would expect research to love is the last thing on everyone’s mind. But the meetings are flourishing.
Across the country, singles are turning to dating apps in record numbers.
The rules for online dating are also evolving rapidly to adapt to this new climate. The Zoom and FaceTime dates quickly became both state sanctioned – and the cool thing to do.
“I have literally four meetings scheduled for tonight,” said Serena Kerrigan, 26, a bachelor and creative director in New York. “There’s no logistics problem. Who’s going to split the bill? Are you going to kiss me after the date? There are so many different things that are very distracting.”
Some have said that this temporary way of finding a romantic relationship could permanently change the way we go out long after the blockages have ended.
“The situation will pass. We will all pass. But what will not change are the behaviors we adopt now when we are at home,” said Daniel Ahmadizadeh, CEO of the new dating app, Quarantine together. “We don’t necessarily solve a coronavirus problem. We solve a loneliness problem that happens to be worse right now because of the coronavirus.”
The online dating business
Before the pandemic, the fatigue of online dating was taking root. The app download date for the top 15 apps was shrinks globally, and research has shown that all this slippage makes people more lonely.
The pandemic, at least in some ways, has been great for business. Dating.com reported that global online dating was up 82% early March for example.
As states across the country began rolling out home stay orders in March 2020, Bumble saw a 26% increase in the number of messages sent to its platform, a company spokesperson told CNBC. Tinder saw the length of conversations increase by 10 to 30%and the Inner Circle elite dating app saw messages increase by 116% over the same period.
To help users comply with social distancing rules, some companies are adapting their business models to meet new quarantine dating standards.
Hinge has rolled out “Date From Home”, a feature that allows users to start a video chat if both people accept the call. The PlentyOfFish app launched LIVE!, Which allows users to stream potential matches live, and the League is now hosting Live League, a fast dating video platform.
Bumble was ahead of the curve compared to some of its competitors, offering integrated video calling since 2019, a feature that has spoiled many users – so far.
The video conversation on Bumble increased 93% in the week after Trump declared a national emergency, the company said.
“The average length of these calls is currently around 30 minutes, which is a very good introductory period to get to know someone,” said Priti Joshi, vice president of strategy for Bumble.
But even as video chat resumes and the number of engagements increases, some singles that CNBC has spoken to are skeptical of how long they can maintain a virtual relationship.
This kind of feeling weighs on some dating apps. Take Match Group, owner of popular apps such as Tinder, Hinge and PlentyOfFish.
Although usage and engagement figures have increased since the start of the epidemic in April, the company started to see a slight drop in subscriber growth and its average revenue per user was stable.
The trend is not all that surprising, since there’s less incentive to pay for features or join an app in the first place, when you can’t migrate your digital connection to the real world.
So far the impact has been minimal, but that could end up being a problem for Match.
The company gets a lot of its money from membership fees and paid features, so keeping and adding more users is key to growing its bottom line. The CEOs of Match Group and Tinder both refused to participate in this story.
The decline in interest in paid dating apps also likely has a lot to do with the fact that more than one in five Americans lost their jobs and claimed unemployment benefits. As experts now warn that the country is heading into a recession in 2020 and that the number of unemployed is increasing every day, subscriptions to dating apps can be a place where people cut their costs.
“What worries me is the propensity of people to spend,” said Ygal Arounian, analyst at Wedbush Securities. “The longer you stay at home, the less you will pay over time. People downgrade plans; they buy pay-per-view features a little less frequently. This puts a little pressure on subscriber growth and income, or [average revenue per user] growth.”
But, for now, Match Group is showing resilience. Its stock outperforms the broader market and its first quarter net profit increased by about 30% compared to the previous year.
The biology of “falling in love”
In February 2020, Netflix released a dating reality show called “Love is Blind”. The show quickly drew mass worship on social media.
The premise of the program is relatively simple: young and attractive singles, not bothered by contact with the outside world, go to meetings with each other in isolated pods where they are unable to see or touch the other person. Seems familiar?
It turns out that dating during a global pandemic and being a candidate for “Love is Blind” are not that different. Both scenarios raise the obvious question: can you really assess physical chemistry in a virtual environment?
Dating expert Charly Lester didn’t think so.
“I don’t think you can ever completely reproduce this physical chemistry with someone via video chat,” said Lester. “But it’s a good litmus test. You can train if you don’t like someone.”
Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist who spent 20 years studying the MRI of madly in love people, disagreed.
“Just because you can’t touch someone doesn’t mean you can’t fall in love with them,” said Fisher.
Fisher said romantic love, even in a virtual setting, can trigger the dopamine system.
“It’s a very primitive path,” said Fisher. “The little basic plant that pumps dopamine is actually right next to the factories that orchestrate thirst and hunger. Dopamine is what gives you that joy, dizziness, euphoria, insomnia, loss appetite, focus, motivation and optimism of intense romantic love. “
It’s not just the dopamine system at work, however, when we fall in love with someone from a distance. Fisher said we take all kinds of clues about who they are.
Just take facial symmetry. Many animals, including humans, are wired to find an attractive symmetry as it is considered a sign of strong genes. We also examine what people are wearing, examine their body language and listen to the tone of the voice, all to try to piece together who we are dealing with exactly.
But visual and auditory cues only go so far. When you have a virtual date, you miss your sense of smell and for women, it’s a major way of judging genetic compatibility.
Another key ingredient in the initial stages of attraction that is lacking is oxytocin. It is activated by touch, which you obviously cannot do when talking to someone on Zoom.
This particular neurochemical is known as the “love hormone” and it is an integral part of forming an attachment to another human being.
Sociologists have long warned of the dangers of prolonged solitary confinement because of this very thing – touch is not only good for bonding with other people, it is also physically good for you. Among other health benefits, it reduces stress.
But public health experts aren’t just worried that many of us experience a lack of physical privacy. It is actually loneliness that can take a heavy toll on our well-being.
Studies have linked extreme loneliness to increased stress levels and increased inflammation throughout the body. The long-term effects of an entire isolated society are even more frightening.
A April 2020 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that almost half of American adults said their mental health had been negatively affected due to anxiety and stress related to the virus.
This is where online dating apps come in. Even if you are not destined to find your soul mate, the bottom line is that you will find a human to talk to.
The future of dating
As states begin to relax quarantine guidelines, some believe that dating rules during a pandemic will remain in place.
“I think I would be much more likely to correspond with someone and say, hey, do you want FaceTime?” said Kerrigan. “There is no money on the table. There is no sex on the table.”
Before the pandemic, meetings in cities like New York were really expensive. Virtual hangouts allow singles to save hundreds of dollars in Manhattan, a trend that will likely continue as unemployment hits 38 million Americans. No money can also level the playing field.
Fisher believes COVID-19 has paved the way for a new stage in the seduction process.
“You know, years ago, marriage was the start of a partnership. Now it’s the finale,” says Fisher. “All of my data shows that the longer the courtship process, the more likely people are to stay together and create a stable partnership.”
It remains to be seen whether this leads to a post-40 marriage boom. One thing we can be sure of; the kind of physical intimacy we are used to can be severely disabled for at least a year or two.
White House health counselor Dr. Anthony Facui says we should never shake hands again. The faces of people across the country are obscured by masks, and even after there is a vaccine or cure for the coronavirus, some people think that we may all be socially conditioned to think twice before risking a kiss. or even a hug with a stranger.