“Who wants to be my quarantine bae?”: Online dating practices during times of social distancing
By Kate Roberts-Baldwin - Undergraduate Student at the Social Research Institute, University College London (under supervision of Dr Katherine Twamley)
The 19th of July marked an important day in the UK government’s political response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The ‘reopening’ of England and similar easing of restrictions in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland has meant that nightclubs and bars can revive their business and social events have no limits on guests. Similarly, the governments ‘sex ban’ no longer applies, meaning that non-cohabiting couples and sex partners can now meet indoors (Sargeant and Nice, 2021). . Despite the many restrictions in place over the last year, I report here how new dating practices facilitated by online platforms (such as Tinder) actually led to higher levels of commitment and a perception of more intimate interactions among young adults.
This blog is based on research about how the pandemic affected young adults’ possibilities to meet new people, focusing in particular on online dating habits among 18- to 28-year-olds living in the UK, as these were the primary means of ‘hooking up’ still available under lockdwon. The data was collected for a bachelor’s thesis at UCL’s Social Research Institute. I conducted an online survey in January 2021 and seven follow-up interviews in February 2021. The findings show how, since the onset of the pandemic, dating technologies have taken on an important function in bringing young adults closer together.
Online dating as a ‘time filler’ and the ‘next best option’ to meet people
I found that young adults are spending more time on dating platforms during the pandemic compared to before. In interviews, participants explained that they had more spare time for online dating since many other leisure activities became more restricted or impossible. Some participants reported logging onto dating platforms to silence their ‘lockdown boredom’.
“You can just swipe when you’re bored and waste some time” – Linus
Participants also expressed frustration about the lack of opportunities to make new acquaintances in their offline social lives. As a result, dating platforms have taken on a more important function in providing opportunities to meet new people. However, just like previous studies have found (Finkel et al., 2012; Illouz, 2007), the interviewees highlighted how text-based communication poses a barrier to ‘genuine’ conversation, arguing there is a scripted nature to online interaction. Furthermore, interviews also revealed how participants held low expectations of other users’ intentions behind online dating. Corresponding to findings from studies that looked into the design of dating platforms (eg. Krüger and Spilde, 2020), participants believed that many individuals use these technologies to seek out one-night stands. Thus, online daters’ preconceptions and mistrust of other users’ intentions remain a persistent obstacle to initiating meaningful relationships via dating platforms.
“I went on the date with that boy, it just felt like…the realisation that I hadn't spoken to a stranger in a year. Because you're not going out, you know, meeting new people. And the first stranger I met is from Tinder. It’s kind of sad that that’s the only way you can meet new people, but I guess, that’s the only way you can do it” – Tessa
Raising the stakes of online dating
At the same time, the social distancing measures and anxieties linked to virus contagion have encouraged higher levels of commitment and more emotional investment among online daters. Before the pandemic, studies have established how the seemingly unlimited romantic possibilities on dating platforms promote the commodification of potential dating partners. Scholars like Bauman (2003) and Illouz (2007) argue that the design of dating platforms encourages individuals to constantly seek a ‘better’ partner, thereby hindering long-term commitment and weakening an individual’s ability to develop strong emotions for another person. This project found that the pandemic has shifted such a fast-paced consumer logic towards promoting dating practices that are predicated on mutual care. Unlike pre-pandemic studies which established that casual sex was a more prominent motive than finding a romantic partner (eg. Timmermans and De Caluwé, 2017), the survey data found that online daters were more concerned with finding a romantic relationship than seeking casual sex. In interviews, one participant shared how he observed more online daters looking for a ‘quarantine bae’, namely a person who comes ‘before anyone else’ or someone they can call their baby or babe (Urban Dictionary, 2016, n.p.).
The interviewees highlighted how physical closeness now requires a higher level of trust, as one relies on a dating partner to have followed the health guidelines. Participants generally displayed high consciousness of the risks related to contracting COVID-19. Many reported adhering to the social distancing measures which prohibit the mixing of households indoors. Such restrictions have made online daters more selective in who they choose to meet in offline spaces, thereby discouraging the use of dating platforms to seek short-term relationships and casual sex.
To minimize the risk of virus transmission, participants started going on socially distanced walks when first seeing someone. Interviewees expressed that this type of date provided them with more possibilities to engage in personal and meaningful conversation compared to the types of interactions that usually occur on dates in restaurants or bars.
“I feel like on our first walk, we spoke about a lot more than I would have if I was dating normally. Because, I don’t know, you go for like drinks and you’re probably chatting about very like ‘Oh, so what drinks do you normally have?’ or ‘Do you go out much?’. Whereas now it's like ‘Oh, what do you do?’, ‘What do you enjoy doing?’ and it just feels like the conversations are a lot more meaningful.”- Tessa
Thus, despite the social distance and anxieties linked to virus transmission, online dating during a pandemic is encouraging higher levels of commitment and more intimate interactions among young adults.
Longing for more connectedness
The use of dating platforms to seek more meaningful, intimate interactions can also be reasoned by higher levels of loneliness among young adults. The pandemic has lessened opportunities to seek closeness and connectedness with others in offline spaces. Young adults have been disproportionately affected by loneliness, where 18- to 30-year-olds are exposed to higher risks of feeling lonely since the spread of the virus (Bu et al., 2020). Preliminary findings of a Harvard survey study in October 2020 revealed that 61% of participants aged 18 to 25 felt ‘serious loneliness’ (Weissbourd et al., 2021).
Although not statistically significant, this project found that higher self-reported loneliness was associated with an increased likelihood of checking online dating profiles more frequently. This relationship was also confirmed in interviews during which participants who reported feeling more socially isolated also shared that they turned to dating platforms to seek companionship. During a time in which the social distancing measures have made our society ‘cooler’, the seeking of warmer intimacies via dating platforms functions for some users as a coping mechanism against feelings of social isolation.
Studying online dating practices during a time of increased risk awareness and social distance, this project has highlighted how digital technologies can compensate for the restrictions in offline contexts. Moreover, I have shown that contrary to previous research, relationships formed online now have a greater weight of commitment and trust. It remains to be seen whether transformations in dating practices seen as ‘more intimate’ (such as meeting in parks) will continue now that restrictions have lifted.
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Urban Dictionary. (2016). Bae. [online] Available at: https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Bae
 Participants are given a pseudonym