stop auto-swiping

They all look enthusiastic and happy on the profile picture.

But many felt increasingly lonely and even depressed during the pandemic.

Swipes over Swabs

Isolated by the pandemic, young adults are turning to dating apps, hoping to balance safety and intimacy.

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Six feet apart. Masks on. Disinfect. It has been a year since the pandemic has pushed people out of arm’s reach.

The impact of self-quarantine, isolation and physical distancing have taken a particularly hard toll on people aged 18 to 29. The connections built between friends, family and potential partners have been forced into an unfamiliar dynamic out of their control and, for over a year, without any end in sight.

But there is a place they can find one another: dating apps.

Apps, like Bumble, Hinge, Tinder, OkCupid, and Coffee Meets Bagel, have become increasingly popular modes of communication and connection. Simply put, apps have offered an open window to the world that had previously felt closed by the pandemic.

However, that desire to meet a match face-to-face is often in conflict with the need to be safe.

Fighting Loneliness

The pandemic has exposed people to a new sort of loneliness. One that has, for some, blurred the lines between what it means to be lonely and what it means to be alone.

“Often people talk about loneliness in terms of being alone,” explains New York City psychoanalyst Dr. Michael Chavis, “Loneliness and alone are not the same thing. To be alone is to be without anyone. To be lonely is to be missing them.”

Cameron Hager, a 26-year-old logistics coordinator who lives in Boston, has been working remotely since the pandemic began in March. As a natural extrovert and people person, Hager was having difficulty with the isolation.

He recalled how his days began to grow repetitious and as time went on, his desire to see his family and friends grew steadily more intense until, after a fairly normal day at work, he began to cry and couldn’t stop.

“I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I was just relentlessly upset and sad and nervous because I don’t really know what is happening in the future, or months down the line, or when it’s going to end... It was a moment of, I couldn’t escape and I was just really looking for an escape.”

By the summer, Hager had returned to dating apps and downloaded Hinge in hopes of restoring a sense of normalcy to his life. The risks of meeting someone new during the pandemic was a consideration, but the idea of simply waiting for the pandemic to end and the uncertainty involved was far less appealing.

Hager's profile pictures on Hinge

“Being single at 26, this is the time I’m normally going to be dating, and the pandemic just kind of stopped that, which was fine for a little bit,” he said. “But eventually I’m thinking to myself, ‘When am I going to be able to go out with somebody again?’.”

Many other young people felt increased loneliness

As the pandemic has stretched onwards, the impact of loneliness and isolation that Hager felt has become widespread. How people understand their loneliness can sometimes be couched in further negative expression.

“Often people who are lonely have all kinds of things that they say to themselves. Negative talk. ‘No one wants to be around me.’ ‘How do I know no one wants to be around me? Because nobody called me all day,” said Dr. Chavis.

In a survey of 204 people between the ages of 18 and 29, 64% reported dealing with negative emotions more often than they had prior to the pandemic.

Almost all said they have experienced increased loneliness as the pandemic has gone on.

145 people (71.0%) said that their desire to connect with people had increased over the course of the pandemic.

These results mirror a survey conducted by CNBC that found that nearly 7 in 10 young adults from the age of 18 to 23 were experiencing loneliness.

Dating apps have profited from this. Match Group, which includes major dating apps such as Tinder, Hinge and OkCupid, has seen a steady rise in popularity. After a slight drop in the first quarter of last year when the pandemic hit the U.S., the number of subscribers grew dramatically, ending the year with a monthly average of over 5 million.

Another popular dating application, Bumble, reported that paying users in the fourth quarter of last year increased to 1.27 million, a 42.5% increase compared to the fourth quarter of 2019.

"I want something to be there with me, a companion.”

For young people like Erlene Tuazaon, a 25-year-old student and receptionist, the balance between the support of friends and family and that of a potential companion isn’t always easy to explain or reconcile.

“Since the pandemic started, I was pretty lonely, like to the point that I was depressed,” Tuazaon explained, “It was to the point that I didn’t want to get up anymore, that kind of thing. But I remembered I have family, let me reach out to my family...I started talking more to my family, more to my friends.”

Despite that support, there was something missing. She had to explain to a concerned friend that turning to dating apps was less about the support and affection found in friendship and more about the search for something more consistent and more personal.

Tuazaon's profile picture on Bumble

“Yeah, you could satisfy my needs in caring for me and loving me and everything. ‘But there are times,’ I told her, ‘I may need affection from somebody else. Not because you’re not giving me enough, but the fact that I think that this person could give me x, y, z...I want something to be there with me, a companion.’”

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Is the risk of meeting new people worth it?

Is the risk of meeting new people worth it?

Even as young people flock to dating apps, health concerns are never far from the front of users’ minds.

People who otherwise wouldn’t have asked about someone’s health before the pandemic now want to know their testing status.

Before the pandemic, 63% of respondents said that it was very important that they knew a potential match was STI-free.

By comparison, almost 55% (111 in total) of respondents said that they would take someone’s word about being COVID free.

Does that mean the desire to connect overrides people’s need to be safe? Has the potential for that more intimate connection become more important than being able to confirm that the person on the other end of the line is healthy?

For Emma Hoey, a 22 year-old graduate student at Brandeis University, who began using dating apps more seriously during the pandemic, the answer to that question has been a number one priority, especially since learning she has an autoimmune disorder.

Hoey's profile pictures on Tinder

“I don’t even want to get the common cold, let alone an STI or anything like that. So I’m more cautious now than I ever have been.”

As soon as a rapport has been established and it looks like things might go further, Hoey always asks her match to send a screenshot of negative test results. She has never felt uncomfortable asking and fortunately, has yet to have her request turned down.

“Everyone’s been super receptive and understanding that if you’re someone high risk, it’s not worth it to take the risk,” she said.

The benefit of being open and consistent with her position on health concerns has allowed Hoey to feel more comfortable when deciding to make the jump from online to offline. When asked what a first date offline would look like, Hoey said that she would invite her date for an at-home dinner accompanied by a movie and something to drink.

“That’ll be a good first date,” she said, “Maybe we’ll kiss.”

Putting a pause on a physical dating

Others feel even more cautious.

“I don’t trust anyone,” said Asha, a 20-year-old sophomore in central Massachusetts who requested that her real name not be used because she has a highly visible role on campus. “I don’t. And it’s not that I don’t believe them...I just don’t think we know enough about COVID.”

Not even proof of testing or vaccination is enough to change her mind. “Because there is so much unknown, I’d rather just not engage,” Asha said, “It’s just the easier choice. And I think that when you look at the cost benefit, it’s a lot of anxiety meeting up with someone new right now that I don’t think is worth the potential payoff.”

Despite not wanting to meet her online connections in person, Asha acknowledged that the matches that she was seeking were those that provided the kind of connections that family and friends couldn’t provide. “You need something more, maybe romantic or even sexual,” she said, “honestly, stuff that you can’t ask other people for.”

"I'm not overly cautious, I'd say average."

For Qi Zhang, a 28-year-old software engineer, dating during the pandemic has been a matter of balancing caution with her desire to meet in person. Zhang explained that staying safe with activities that are mindful of public health mandates like social distancing is a good way to meet someone for the first time.

“When I was with my ex, the first time I saw him, we both wore masks and tried to avoid groups of people and tried to have a walk in the park,” Zhang said, “And later on in the relationship I went to his place. I’m not overly cautious, I’d say average.”

Though able to stick to the boundaries she’s comfortable with, Zhang noted that the conventions of pre-pandemic dating had come up in her dating life and had, at one point, brought her pause when scheduling a date with her current boyfriend.

Zhang's profile pictures on Hinge (pixelated for a privacy purpose)

“He asked me to go to an Indian restaurant to dine in,” said Zhang, “I texted him back and said I really don’t feel comfortable to dine in right now so I think we can do remote chatting instead. Funny thing, he texted me back and said, ‘Actually I have the same thought.’”

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Other relationships changed too

Other relationships changed too

As young people navigate the subtleties of online dating, they have been challenged to consider how they are managing their feelings through their connections with other people, particularly those close to them.

Yet when muddled with loneliness, the dynamic can be more complex.

“We start to present, when we are lonely, ourselves in ways that the people experiencing us want to be by ourselves. And sometimes, the expectation is that the other would read our minds and meet us on this side of the fence,” Dr. Chavis said.

Chavis explains that the fundamental nature of our relationships have changed. Those close to us, perhaps family living in the same home, can feel too close. Those who we connect to online, without seeing them in person, feel too far. The pandemic has forced people to reconsider how they connect and what significance those connections hold.

Realizing what's really important

Kacey Quenzer, a 27-year-old buyer for a national power company, felt isolated quickly into quarantine. “I’m a social person, but I was also going through a breakup right when it hit, so that made it harder,” she recalls.

Even more, Quenzer had just moved into her own apartment – an accomplishment she celebrated, but also one that left her even more alone.

She turned to dating apps, particularly Hinge, to find distraction from her breakup and to escape from the walls of her one-bedroom in South Boston.

Unfortunately, she found it hard to make genuine connections on the app. Her surface-level or one-off interactions on the app made her “treasure the genuine connections” she’d already found in her life, “I’ve realized what matters more,” she stated.

What mattered most, she now understood, was her previous relationship. Quenzer and her ex-boyfriend, who lives in England, began communicating again. “We talked on and off throughout quarantine, but I was guarded because I was so hurt by what we went through before.”

In February of 2021, nearly a year into the pandemic, Quenzer had an epiphany. “I called him and told him I was all in.”

Quenzer (left), Quenzer and her ex-boyfriend (right)

Quenzer notes that quarantine gave her and her ex-boyfriend both the time they needed to really think about what they wanted and to be intentional about moving forward. “We both needed to do some work alone to make this work as a couple. I’m not sure we would’ve gotten there if life had kept on as normal.”

In May, Quenzer will fly to England to reunite with him. They have a schedule of visits mapped out for the rest of the year. From there, they’ll figure the rest out, together.

Trapped by dating apps

Dating apps were the “only avenue to meet people” and “only source of validation,” for Thao Tran, a 24-year-old investment manager and teacher in Seattle. But Tran fell into the apps so much that she ended up risking her sane.

Tran's profile pictures on Hinge

For Tran, who describes herself as a “huge extrovert,” loneliness defined 2020, even though she used Tinder, Hinge and Bumble throughout the pandemic.

Tran recalled at one point becoming obsessed with dating apps. The endless swiping made her feel like she was, “literally swiping on all of the population of Seattle.”

“I felt so lost, and I started verbalizing things where I'm like, I really don’t like myself. Like, I don’t know who I am. I don't like myself. It was really, really tough for me to do that.”

Eventually, Tran returned home to California, to friends and family. Through spending time with them she found emotional healing.

After returning to Seattle, Tran recalled how she almost went over to a guy’s house for a drink but stopped herself. “I actually ended up just sitting and drinking a glass of wine and writing all of my friends Valentine’s Day cards,” she said.

The pandemic has challenged long held notions of our relationships and how we connect. It has highlighted the issues born when self-esteem and self-validation are rooted in confirmation from others. And perhaps, for some, exposed the anxieties of being alone after having been alone for so long.

“I think that people seek that kind of closeness, a direct love relationship, that grows out of an ongoing feeling of isolation. The wish to be with someone. To know you are with someone...They wish for that oneness because there's a kind of paranoia of being alone. That oneness is about fighting that paranoia. About fighting the fear that one is left without,” said Dr. Chavis.

Whatever the “new normal” may look like for relationships, it’s clear that how they are formed, maintained and valued have changed. Whether striking up conversation in public social settings or through dating apps, the experiences of the pandemic may impact how those interactions are navigated. “Has this person taken proper public health precautions?” “Am I really ready to meet someone in person?” “How much longer can I be happy being single?”

Will people be eager and open to connect, like Cam? Vigilant about their health yet open to meet, like Emma? Will some still be uncertain about meeting in person, like Asha? Or perhaps, like Thao, find strong connections in familial and friendly spaces? “My emphasis on love right now is my friends and family because they’re giving that back to me,” said Thao.

Produced by students of the Media Innovation masters' program at the Northeastern University School of Journalism. © 2021