Brenna Moore, Psy.D.
Covid-19 has undeniably shifted the dating field for emerging adults. Consider one of the main drivers that motivate people to date: loneliness. Initially during the pandemic, the impacts of social isolation on older adults concerned many experts; however, some data suggest that younger adults experienced higher rates of loneliness and depression in 2020 (Beam & Kim, 2020). For example, an April 2020 study found that rates of depression and loneliness most strongly correlated with unmarried, low-income women aged 20 to 29 (Rosenberg et al., 2021). Research indicates that increased social isolation and loneliness have led to negative consequences for mental and physical health (Field et al., 2020; Hwang et al., 2020; Sanderson et al., 2020; Twenge & Joiner, 2020).
Young adults have had a tough break all around since the pandemic started. Given some of the features that define emerging adulthood — such as exploring one’s identity and constructing the foundation of adult life — it makes sense that this age group found themselves navigating instability in many life domains, including developing and maintaining intimate connections. They had to adjust to the social restrictions of the pandemic. For this reason, dating apps saw a surge in use at the beginning of the pandemic. Online dating served as a major outlet for connection during quarantine, and the apps remain one of the main sources for seeking romantic connection, even as social distancing guidelines have loosened.
Pandemic or Not - Dating App Stressors
Dating app stressors are nothing new. Even before the pandemic, online dating came with its own set of stressors similar to organic dating. Common challenges include romantic rejection and ghosting (Kross et al., 2011), and these forms of social rejection can result in increased stress, depression and difficulty self-regulating (Ford & Collins, 2013). Women also are at increased risk for receiving explicit messages and harassment.
Finding a balance between time and pay off causes issues, too. People report feeling burnt out from frequent dating app use when there are minimal rewards, which can lead to increased risk of anxiety and depression (Marateck, 2018; Panova & Lleras, 2016). Furthermore, the dating app cycle takes time and energy, which can lead to emotional and mental fatigue, as well as frustration and disappointment if romantic pursuits continually don’t work out (Litsey, 2021; Moore, 2022).
Online dating also makes it easier for people to lie or misrepresent themselves. These misrepresentations could involve physical appearance or intentions, values or actions. People looking for a partner end up feeling increased vigilance for dishonesty.
Other stressors in online dating and organic dating have become more pronounced since the start of the pandemic. At a concrete level, people worry about navigating health and safety risks. In the more abstract, many have developed a scarcity mindset. They feel anxious about potentially being single forever or running out of options. They grow concerned about their timeline for finding a long-term partner and achieving other life goals, especially when comparing themselves to friends who have partners (Barreto et al., 202; Moore, 2022).
Fortunately, it’s not all bad news for young adults looking to find romantic connections. Evidence suggests dating can have positive psychological experiences for emerging adults. These benefits include opportunities for self-reflection and personal growth. Online dating offers greater insight into oneself (e.g., defining one’s values), a chance to further develop a sense of identity, and creates stronger ideas about what to look for in a partner based on experiences in dating (Korenthal, 2013; Litsey, 2021; Moore, 2022). Additionally, positive dating experiences enhance self-esteem and confidence, which can empower people (Lash, 2017; Litsey, 2021; Moore, 2022; Yurchisin et al, 2005).
Thriving Through Dating
Many emerging adults come to psychotherapy with concerns about their social and romantic lives, so it is important for mental health providers to understand the stressors in online dating and the different challenges clients may encounter in this context during the pandemic. It’s also important for emerging adults to look for the positives in dating during this challenging time.
Here are some ideas to consider for coping and thriving in the context of dating, whether you’re a young adult navigating dating during the pandemic or a mental health provider supporting your client.
- Explore the positives of online dating. Dates provide a reason to get outside and socialize with new people. They can be opportunities to learn something new or try a new hobby.
- Recognize when to take breaks from dating apps to recharge and self-reflect. This can be especially helpful when stuck in a negative dating cycle.
- Look for growth opportunities in challenging experiences, which can then be used to find deeper meaning.
- Learn about healthy relationships and boundaries — both an essential part of development in emerging adults.
- Try reframing to reduce the chances of internalizing negative experiences, like rejection.
- Pursue enriching activities, such as hobbies, passions or exercise.
- Build and utilize a social support system. This may include friends, co-workers, teachers or family members you feel comfortable opening up to during challenging times.
- Find opportunities for self-empowerment by learning to assert needs and wants in a relationship.
- Utilize personal strengths and resources.
- Understand short- and long-term goals. This will help in deciding where to focus attention and efforts.
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