In New York, the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., the city’s health department put out a set of guidelines entitled, “Sex and coronavirus disease.” One piece of official advice: “You are your safest sex partner.”
Dating is hard enough in the best of times. Throw in government directives like this, plus nationwide social distancing mandates, and a highly contagious virus for which there’s no cure or vaccine, and you would expect the search for love to be the last thing on everyone’s mind. But dating is thriving.
Singles across the country are turning to dating apps in record numbers.
The rules of online dating are also rapidly changing to adapt to this new climate. Zoom and FaceTime dates have fast become both the state-sanctioned — and the cool thing to do.
“I have literally four dates planned tonight,” said Serena Kerrigan, a 26-year-old New York single and Creative Director. “There’s no dealing with the logistics. Who’s going to split the bill? Are you going to kiss me after the date? There’s so many different things that are very distracting.”
Some said this stop-gap way of finding romance has the potential to permanently change the way we date long after the lockdowns end.
“The situation is going to pass. We’re all gonna get through it. But what’s not going to change are the behaviors that we’re adopting now by being at home,” said Daniel Ahmadizadeh, CEO of the newly launched dating app, Quarantine Together. “We’re not necessarily solving a coronavirus problem. We’re solving a problem of loneliness that happens to be compounded right now because of coronavirus.”
The business of online dating
Before the pandemic, online dating fatigue was taking hold. Dating app downloads for the top 15 apps was shrinking globally, and research showed that all that swiping just made people lonelier.
The pandemic, at least by some metrics, has been great for business. Dating.com reported that global online dating was up 82% during early March, for example.
As states across the country began rolling out stay-at-home orders in March 2020, Bumble saw a 26% increase in the number of messages sent on its platform, a company spokesperson told CNBC. Tinder saw the length of conversations rise by 10-30%, and elite dating app Inner Circle saw messages rise 116% over that same time period.
To help users comply with social distancing rules, some companies are adapting their business models to cater to the new norms of dating while under quarantine.
Hinge rolled out “Date From Home,” a feature that lets users launch a video chat if both people agree to the call. The PlentyOfFish app launched LIVE!, which enables users to livestream with potential matches, and The League now hosts League Live, a video speed-dating platform.
Bumble was ahead of the curve compared to some of its rivals, offering in-app video calls since 2019, a feature that laid waste by many users — until now.
Video chatting over Bumble rose 93% in the week after Trump declared a national emergency, the company said.
“The average time in these calls is about 30 minutes right now, which is a really good introductory period to get to know somebody,” said Priti Joshi, Bumble’s VP of Strategy.
But even as video chatting picks up, and engagement numbers rise, some singles CNBC spoke to are skeptical about how long they can keep up a virtual relationship.
That kind of sentiment is taking a toll on some dating apps. Just take Match Group, owner of popular apps like Tinder, Hinge and PlentyOfFish.
Even though usage and engagement numbers have been on the rise since the start of the outbreak, in April, the company started to see a slight decline in subscriber growth and its average revenue per user was flat.
The trend isn’t all that surprising, given there’s less of an incentive to pay for features, or join an app in the first place, when you can’t migrate your digital connection into the real world.
While the impact so far is minimal, this could end up being a problem for Match.
The company makes a lot of its money from membership fees and paid features, so retaining and adding more users is key to growing its bottom line. The CEOs of Match Group and Tinder both declined to participate in this story.
Waning interest in paid dating apps also likely has a lot to do with the fact that more than one in five Americans has lost their jobs and filed for unemployment benefits. With experts now warning the country is headed for a recession in 2020, and with unemployment numbers growing by the day, subscriptions to dating apps may be one place where people cut costs.
“What I’m worried about is people’s propensity to spend,” said Ygal Arounian, an analyst at Wedbush Securities. “The longer you are stuck at home, the less likely you’re going to pay over time. People are downgrading plans; they’re buying a la carte features a little bit less frequently. That’s putting a bit of pressure on subscriber growth and on revenue, or [average revenue per user] growth.”
But, for now, Match Group is proving resilient. Its stock is outperforming the wider market, and its first quarter net profit grew about 30%, compared to a year earlier.
The biology of “falling in love”
In February 2020, Netflix released a dating reality TV show called “Love is Blind.” The show soon attracted a mass cult following on social media.
The premise of the program is relatively simple: young and attractive singles, unencumbered by contact with the outside world, go on dates with each other in isolated pods where they are unable to see or touch the other person. Sound familiar?
Turns out, dating during a global pandemic and being a contestant on “Love is Blind” aren’t too dissimilar. Both scenarios beg the obvious question: Can you truly gauge physical chemistry in a virtual setting?
Dating expert Charly Lester didn’t think so.
“I don’t think you’re ever going to be able to completely replicate that physical chemistry with someone over video chat,” Lester said. “But it is a good litmus test. You’ll be able to work out if you don’t like someone.”
Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist who has spent 20 years studying the MRI scans of people who are madly in love, disagreed.
“Just because you can’t touch somebody, does not mean that you can’t fall in love with them,” Fisher said.
Fisher said that romantic love, even in a virtual setting, can trigger the dopamine system.
“It’s a very primitive pathway,” said Fisher. “The basic little factory that pumps out the dopamine actually lies right next to factories that orchestrate thirst and hunger. Dopamine is what gives you that elation, the giddiness, euphoria, the sleeplessness, the loss of appetite, the focus, the motivation and the optimism of intense romantic love.”
It’s not just the dopamine system at work, however, when we’re falling in love with somebody at a distance. Fisher said we’re picking up on all kinds of cues about who they are.
Just take facial symmetry. Lots of animals, including humans, are hardwired to find symmetry attractive because it’s seen as a sign of strong genes. We also look at what people are wearing, examine their body language and listen to voice tone, all to try to piece together who exactly we’re dealing with.
But visual and auditory cues only go so far. When you’re on a virtual date, you’re missing out on your sense of smell, and for women, it’s a major way to judge genetic compatibility.
Another key ingredient of the initial stages of attraction that’s missing is oxytocin. It’s activated by touch, something you obviously aren’t able to do when you’re talking to somebody on Zoom.
This particular neurochemical is known as the “love hormone,” and it’s integral to forming an attachment to another human being.
Sociologists have long warned of the dangers of prolonged solitary confinement because of this very thing — touch isn’t just good for forming bonds with other people, it’s also physically good for you. Among other health benefits, it reduces stress.
But public health experts aren’t just worried about the fact that lots of us are experiencing a lack of physical intimacy. It’s actually the loneliness that can take a major toll on our well-being.
Studies have tied extreme loneliness to rising stress levels and increased inflammation throughout the body. The long-term effects of an entire society in isolation are even scarier.
An April 2020 poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that nearly half of American adults said their mental health has been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the virus.
That’s where online dating apps come into the picture. Even if you’re 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 think the rules for dating during a pandemic will stick.
“I think that I would be much more likely to match with someone and say, hey, want to FaceTime?” says Kerrigan. “There’s no money on the table. There’s no sex on the table.”
Pre-pandemic, dating in cities like New York was really expensive. Virtual hangouts are saving singles in Manhattan hundreds of dollars, a trend that will likely continue as unemployment tops 38 million Americans. No money can also level the playing field.
Fisher thinks COVID-19 has given way to a new stage in the courtship process.
“You know, years ago, marriage used to be the beginning of a partnership. Now it’s the finale,” says Fisher. “All of my data show that the longer the courtship process is, the more likely people are to remain together and create a stable partnership.”
Whether this leads to a wedding boom post quarantine remains to be seen. One thing that we can be sure of; the kind of physical intimacy we’re used to may be severely handicapped for at least a year or two.
Top White House health advisor Dr. Anthony Facui thinks we should never shake hands, ever again. People’s faces across the country are obscured by masks, and even after there’s a vaccine or a cure to coronavirus, some think we might all be socially conditioned to think twice before risking a kiss or even a hug with a relative stranger.