Are people still dating during COVID-19? Social distancing makes meeting people more difficult than ever. But a recent ethics and tech panel explained a few trends you might not have guessed.
On Sept. 2, the Duke Science & Society released another edition of its coronavirus series: “The science and ethics of dating and sex during COVID-19.” Duke Student Development Coordinator Lindsey Parker moderated the two visiting speakers. The first speaker, Dr. Laurence Steinberg, teaches psychology at Temple University. The second speaker, Dr. Catalina Toma, teaches communications with a specific expertise in online dating and social networking at the Univ. of Wisconsin – Madison. Together, they examined the world of safe dating in COVID-19.
Online Dating Has Expanded in COVID-19
“All of us online dating researchers have started wondering what COVID-19 is going to do to online dating,” Toma said. Digital meet-up apps had already swept dating: “Online dating had revolutionized the dating landscape long before COVID.”
But the social distancing and business closures offered a ripe moment for tech. “With mandates for social isolation,” Toma said, “people experience loneliness to a significant degree, especially single people.” Enter the technology we use for dating. “People are turning to online dating in tremendous numbers to fill that void.” But she added that more people looking for love (or just friendship) online brought new features to the apps and sites they use.
Dating apps have added more interactive features.
“Now you have video-dating if you want to do a vibe-check [of the conversation],” Toma said. Where many people online had preferred text-based conversations before COVID-19, they may now prefer face-to-face talking even if it’s all digital. Online dating companies have also expanded the joint digital activities which couples can try together – shared crossword puzzles and drawing one another digitally, for instance. “[These activities] foster a sense of playfulness that’s really important in the dating scenario,” Toma said.
She also mentioned that, given the risks of in-person meetings, hook-up culture has apparently lost steam. “Of course there are still going to be reckless individuals hooking up even in the height of a pandemic,” Toma said, “but it does appear to be decreasing.”
She mentioned communal loneliness as a factor. “Users are more interested in long-term relationships now in a more gradual, longer process,” she said. “It might be a good thing in the long run.”
At least one report, from Lauren Hammerman in Durham, backs up Toma’s findings. Hammerman met her boyfriend during COVID-19, and dating apps lent them a hand. “Tech helped initially,” she said, “because we met through a dating app. Not being able to physically talk to or see one another in the beginning actually allowed us to make a deeper emotional connection earlier on.”
Physical Dating Still Presents Risks
Hammerman acknowledged the risk, though both she and her boyfriend carefully minimized what they could before (and during) meeting in person. “We did talk it through before we decided to meet,” she said. “We didn’t see [dating] as too much of a risk, because we both followed COVID protocols together and apart.” Still, they chose safeguards: “We also decided to hang out just the two of us for a few dates, to minimize risks to our friends and loved ones.”
Dr. Laurence Steinberg said that not everyone has chosen choice to shrink risks. He spoke specifically about college students who choose to meet partners in large groups. “There isn’t an age in human development during which people are more likely to take risks than the [college-age] period,” he said. He’d written a June op-ed which explained that students wouldn’t stick to COVID-19 restrictions if colleges reopened. “Students would start to become cavalier about the precautions,” he said in the panel, “but also tired of living the way that they’re living.”
We’ve seen that college students haven’t managed to prevent clusters so far. Steinberg understood why students would take the risk. “The social dimension is extremely important,” he said, “that’s why a lot of young people want to go to college.” But he knows the difficulty of preventing students’ risky behaviors from his own studies. “Educating people about [COVID-19] safety, that’s fine,” he said, “but we know that when the sexual train leaves the station, a lot of people forget what they’ve been taught.”
Toma echoed his point. She sees loneliness for single people as a significant motivator. “I can totally see how it would make a person balance the risk of contracting COVID with the risks of extended and really painful lonliness,” she said.
Moderator Lindsey Parker mentioned Duke students’ stress about safely socializing.
“Students are always pressing me for concrete things they can do to practice safety,” she said. “In my work, we’re often challenged to empower students to make the very best choices they can.”
She explained that Duke employees assume that students will date. That understanding creates a tension: how to keep students safe? “We know that students are going to have sex,” Parker said. “We need to equip them with the things they need to do that safely. But we also have to balance the Duke Compact [of safe behaviors].”
Panel Members Believe You Can Find Safe Dating in COVID-19
Parker asked both speakers if dating could still happen safely. “Absolutely, yes,” said Toma. The caution she recommends might mean a longer, slower courtship. But she says that could become an improvement. “As long as you are careful and follow social distancing mandates and get tested, there is a way to date and form social connections.”
Steinberg agreed that the usual methods of preventing COVID-19 allow for dating. He listed “the pillars of social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands, that sort of thing.” But he did mention the oddity of these choices. “It strikes me that they’re not the most romantic concepts,” he joked.
So there you have it. A few experts (hosted by an NC university which holds in-person classes and tests students weekly) say there’s a way to meet someone. Of course, they stress that the usual avenues (parties, bars and other gatherings) pose significant risks. But with online dating and other cautions built for COVID-19, meeting someone remains possible. Safe, even.
Which options will you consider?