Running out of social options – how the coronavirus affected the way we use dating apps

Authors: Ane Mestvedthagen and Zsuzsi Palotas

Since the corona pandemic started, people have taken to the dating apps like never before. Photo: Zsuzsi Polatas

“Corona made me start tindering again,” says the message from our newest match Sam, sent late Friday night. In an evening like this, we should have met at a bar or in a club, but that’s not really possible these days. We are all well aware of that. He laughs off the ridiculous situation by typing a smiling emoji with tears of joy; one of the most commonly used emojis there is. But as innocent as it may sound, Sam’s text portrays a feeling much more serious than he pretends it is. Our match feels lonely. He said it himself just a few messages ago.

“That’s exactly the main reason why I’m here,” comes the answer from the 21-year-old Sebastiaan. “Because besides the internet I have not many persons to communicate with.” As he shares his own experiences, he unknowingly personifies the faceless crowd which seeks for connections. Young students who cannot go out at night and find new friends. Single people working from home, spending their days alone in their apartment. Men and women who do not dare to meet their friends because that have a family member with a serious health condition; a member they cannot afford to lose. Even people with large friend groups, who cannot remember the last time they got to meet all of their friends at once. 

People who are lonely, and people who have felt more lonely since the coronapandemic sent the Netherlands into months of social restrictions and lockdown rules. Strict social rules and advises are crucial to stop the spread of the coronavirus. But for some, these restrictions have caused irreparable damage, something which Sebastiaan himself knows all too well.

Video about the conversation with Sebastiaan. Created by Zsuzsi Palotás
Sebastiaan experienced the fatal consequences the corona pandemic causes. Screenshot: Tinder

Sam and Sebastiaan are both on Tinder because of the global pandemic. But they are far from the only ones who have changed their dating app habits during corona. 

In the beginning of the pandemic, dating apps like Tinder and Bumble set new records usage. “On Sunday, March 29, Tinder recorded more than three billion “swipes” on the platform, the highest single-day activity volume in the app’s history,” says Elie Seidman, CEO of Tinder. On Bumble, the number of video calls made increased by 70% during the same time period. 

The two dating apps Tinder and Bumble are both widely used in the Netherlands. They have carried out an international research focusing on the effects caused by the Covid-19 pandemic in particular. “They discovered that two in three users self-reported that they struggled with their mental health and well-being as a result of the pandemic,” says Jemma Ahmed, Bumble’s Head of Insights. The research also showed that nine out of ten users feel that their lives have been radically altered in 2020, primarily as a result of COVID-19.

Both Tinder and Bumble have seen a steady increase in number of users and revenue since 2015, Business of Apps reports. But the past year’s increase overshadows that of previous years. In 2020, Bumble was valued at $8 billion, compared to $3 billion the previous year. 

The date March 29, 2020 made us think. It was the beginning of the pandemic, severe lockdown measures had been imposed in nearly every country in the Western hemisphere, and the number of covid-19 related deaths passed 10.000 just a bit over a week earlier. All this just as Tinder broke its own record of daily swipes. 

The day with the record-breaking number of swipes did not pass without a trace. 

For Malorie Zonts, her Tinder adventure had a happy ending as she met her partner on the app.

On Twitter, the words “Tinder” and “lonely” have been used in combination more frequently than before the pandemic rippled. The words are mainly used in tweets that discuss people’s struggle with loneliness, as well as some sort of fear from downloading Tinder. 

Twitter user Kenzie_Sheldon is just one of many who has used Twitter to announce that her loneliness might result in a new Tinder account.

These are international numbers. But how has the corona situation affected people’s use of dating apps here in the Netherlands? To have first-hand information about the current situation we contacted the users of Tinder and Bumble themselves. It was time for us to download the apps ourselves and go right into the belly of the beast. 

Tinder has been downloaded more than 430 million times globally. More than half of its users belong to generation Z, aged 18 to 25. When we created our own profiles on the platforms we therefore set our age range to 20-30 to reach those who are the most active. Within seconds, the first matches ticked in. 

We reached out to 115 people on Tinder, and 59 replied back, nearly all being men. After wishing a good evening to the respondents who answered that they did not want to participate, we were left with 51 matches. On Bumble, we contacted 60 people, of which 17 replied. 

Back to the stories of Sam and Sebastiaan. The two men both struggle with loneliness during these corona times, and they have both downloaded Tinder to fight this all-consuming feeling. But they are not alone in their struggle. Over half of the people we talked to said they either feel lonely or lonelier than before the pandemic started; 57% of the people on Tinder and 41% of the respondents on Bumble. Some said they feel much lonelier, others that the feeling comes and goes sporadically. For both platforms, the numbers are much higher than shown in reports from the Dutch authorities. 

The past five years, the percentage of the Dutch population struggling with loneliness has been stable. However, in 2020, the numbers grew rapidly.  A report from the Netherlands Institute for Social Research shows that one third of all Dutch adults felt lonely in 2020. Previous years, this percentage has circulated around 29%. 

A study by I&O research also shows that in May last year, 55% of young adults aged 18-24 felt more lonely during the corona pandemic than before. 

Based on the aswers we got from Tinder different user purposes appeared. Graph: Flourish

Although many of our matches said they feel lonely, few of them use Tinder or Bumble to cope with loneliness. Instead, the dating apps are used to combat quite a different feeling. 

“I use it out of boredom,” says one match. A second match says the same. So does a third. The answers arriving seem to become a pattern. 

“due to boredom if that makes sense”

“it does ease the boredom from being home most of the time”

The endless sequence of messages and the lack of physical meetups can easily lead to boredom. Most respondents did not mention whether they would use the app out of boredom, but when we asked specifically, the reactions revealed that many of them are just “swiping and slightly not giving a f*ck about the conversation,” as Nando, a 22-year-old user mentioned. 

By becoming users our experiences also echoed what we discovered about the others. As we found, a dating app feels less personal than if you meet someone outside. Your multitasking skills improve greatly as you navigate through multiple conversations, trying to remember what you said to whom. Whole personalities, their thoughts and ideas are compromised into one light grey text box. 

Their voices crushed into written words and spoken out loud by your inner voice; one you’ve heard multiple times. This transformation from in-person to text communication is more than just an inconvenient detail.

Take a funny comment or joke. In real life, a good joke would make us laugh out loud, but when the same joke is delivered through a chat, the best we can do is give it a half smirk. Smiling is linked to a decrease in both your heart rate and blood pressure. It also serves as an antidepressant. As we read text message upon text message, we could not help but wonder whether we missed out on certain health benefits which would have been there if we met our matches in real life. 

After a few matches and chats, the novelty wears off. It becomes easier to ignore the flame notification popping up on your cell phone. The conversation starts as abruptly as a flame when you lit a match, but it also burns out quietly just like one. 

“An average guy, may get 10-15 likes a month and from those matches maybe 1-3 reply and from those you rarely end up going on a date. Which is totally understandable but it kinda puts down the guys’ self-esteem,” says Angelo, a 29-year-old male. He believes that dating apps like Tinder just worsen the feeling of loneliness, especially among men. This scenario is not unique to the corona pandemic, but in a time when people say they feel lonelier than ever, it can hardly be seen as a solution to the problem.

Some matches, such as Angelo, said that Tinder in general can make men feel more lonely and decrease their self-confidence. Screenshot: Tinder

A psychologist from the Netherlands who prefered to stay anonymous (since her expertise are not directly connected to this area) thinks that dating apps are a possibly good way to combat loneliness, especially in these times when getting to know people is hard and nice conversations in-person are rare. However, she warns the dark side of infinite swiping and putting oneself out there to be judged.

She says, “I do think that people who are lonely, not feeling well, or dealing with depressive thoughts would not as easy as ‘healthy’ use dating apps for fun. Because it is also a direct way to be confronted with rejection.”

The psychologist also adds that rejections via dating apps “can be a trigger for worser things.”

Loneliness may also lead to severe mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. Even your physical health can be severely damaged, as it is linked to a 50% increased risk of dementia. Your risk of getting a heart disease increases with 25% and for a stroke, the number goes up to 32%. For people like Angelo, who think Tinder increases their feeling of loneliness, the best option might be to delete the app. But could other dating apps be better suited for him?

“I like the many new platforms for online dating,” says the psychologist. She brings up the examples of Bumble and Hinge where, according to her, users are less vulnerable and have more control. 

As for Tinder, she refers to it as “old-fashioned” and more of a “meat-market” than a dating app.

A quick Twitter search shows that conversations about Bumble are usually characterized by positivity and self-appreciation. The combination of the words “Bumble” and “lonely” rarely show up on the popular social media platform.

Bumble promises more opportunities than Tinder for finding users looking for meaningful connections during a pandemic. Users may choose between three modes of connection with other users: dating, friendships, and business. When we engaged in conversations, we used the BFF function of the app. 

We experienced a perceptibly different atmosphere on Bumble compared to Tinder. Only a fraction of the messages looked like this: “I noticed I check the app daily for new people to load in, which is just sad to be honest, I don’t want to depend on it so much”. The Bumble users we talked with said they did not feel the need to download the app because of loneliness. 

Instead, most said they created an account because they recently moved to a new city and want to get to know other people. Many make more and more friendships along the “more the merrier” principle.

“I had a really nice group of friends already so I didn’t feel the need to install it.”

“I’ve made two really amazing friends in the span of a month and we’ve been friends for over a year now.”

“I didn’t feel lonely at all.. that’s because I still can go to work and see my friends.”

“Despite everything I did not feel alone, I was at home with my family and friends.”

Screenshot: Bumble

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