FARMINGTON – How has the dating world – from sexually transmitted infections to digital connections – shifted in the face of the pandemic’s social-distancing measures?
With fewer in-person interactions, health officials in Southwest Colorado and northwest New Mexico report a decrease in cases of sexually transmitted infections, such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, HIV and syphilis.
But local public health officials are quick to warn reported cases of sexually transmitted infections don’t necessarily mean fewer STIs are being transmitted. It only means there are fewer cases being diagnosed and reported.
“Our rates are down from last year at this time, but with stay-at-home orders, we are concerned people are not seeking testing and treatment they might need,” said Claire Ninde, spokeswoman for San Juan Basin Public Health.
SJBPH’s sexual health clinic still has a range of patients who test positive for chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis, she said. For privacy concerns, she said the department could not release exact numbers of diagnosed infections.
She said SJBPH believes people might be having fewer sexual partners because the response to the coronavirus pandemic has limited opportunities for people to go out to bars and restaurants. But there has also been limited access to preventive care visits, such as STI screenings. Ninde said many asymptomatic patients will test positive during those routine screenings.
She added that pre-COVID-19, the STI rates in La Plata and Archuleta counties tended to be affected by how much the population of the two counties traveled to other cities and areas where STI and HIV rates were higher, which added to the spread of those infections locally.
Although fewer patients are seeking care during the pandemic to reduce the possible transmission of COVID-19, Ninde said SJBPH continues to offer STI testing and treatment, PrEP (a medication to prevent HIV) and free condoms.
San Juan Regional Medical Center in Farmington has also seen a similar decrease in reported cases of sexually transmitted infections from January to May 15 of this year compared with 2019. But like La Plata and Archuleta counties, health officials warn it might not mean there are actually fewer infections.
“While we did show a decline in the number of cases recorded, that doesn’t necessarily translate to a lower rate,” said Laura Werbner, spokeswoman with San Juan Regional Medical Center. “It could mean that fewer people are seeking care.”
Dating apps are boomingWith fewer opportunities to meet potential partners in person, it seems the romantically-inclined are seeking out connection via dating apps in even higher numbers than before the pandemic.
Three of the largest dating apps – Tinder, Bumble and Hinge – have all reported spikes in usage since the pandemic began and resulted in business closures and stay-at-home orders. While the dating apps couldn’t provide a regional breakdown of usage, the national trends speak to increased time on the apps and a turn to video chats.
A Tinder spokesperson said more people are swiping right to “match” with someone new, having more text conversations and those conversations are lasting longer. Since March, daily conversations increased by 19% for users in the U.S., and the average length of conversations is now 8% longer, according to Tinder.
“The pandemic has dissolved the lines between our digital and physical lives. This cultural shift was already underway with our Gen Z members – but the pandemic is accelerating and broadening it to other generations,” said Tinder CEO Elie Seidman.
To avoid the possible spread of the virus, more people are also exploring what it means to go on a “digital date,” typically over video chat, instead of meeting for the first time in person.
While Tinder currently doesn’t offer video chat, it is looking to incorporate live video. Bumble, a dating app where women message first, has seen expanded use in its in-app video and voice call features. Users can make voice and video calls within the app without having to share personal information, such as a phone number or email address.
A Bumble spokesperson said the app saw a 69% increase in video calls from April 26 to May 1 compared with March 8 to March 13, with an average call time of 28 minutes.
“This only further validates that when physical connection is limited, humans will seek out other means to interact and engage, and video calling is meeting that demand,” a Bumble spokesperson said.
Some dating apps, like Hinge, have even decided to share information from the World Health Organization about best practices and guidelines for social distancing.
A rise in digital dating can also come with an increased potential for projections, said Julia Dengel, a mental health counselor at San Juan College.
“When you’re meeting people online, there’s an element of fantasy, projection and not seeing clearly,” she said. “The risk is you’ll see what you want to see because of the need to love and be loved.”
Dengel said there’s still a certain amount of projection even when we “have the full data set of seeing, feeling, being in the room with someone,” but it can be amplified when interacting only online with someone, with a curated social media feed and dating profile.
While it might not be the same as being in the physical presence of somebody, she added, it’s fortunate the pandemic is unfolding in a time people can connect in a way that wasn’t possible 15 years ago.
“It’s a very profound, fundamental human need to be loved and to give love,” she said.