The trope that Gen Z is online all the time has (re)tired. Because, given the year and a half we’ve all had, who isn’t? Be it to WFH or be it stay in touch will the loved ones, any way to feel less isolated is an opportunity one must use. One must fight the pandemic fatigue and brave the information overload to connect with people, especially the ‘young and restless’ who are spending their prime, sitting at home. Needless to say, everything changed in 2020. The loss, longing, and loneliness that the pandemic created in the lives of young people has accelerated a new normal in their dating intent and has forced them to look and pursue romantic relationships in a different light. To find ways to reconnect with people on apps like Tinder. However, Gen Z isn’t afraid to bare it all; instead, they are becoming more vocal and honest about their vulnerabilities with mentions of ‘anxiety’ and ‘normalize’ in their Tinder bios growing during the pandemic (according to a study, the word ‘anxiety’ grew 31%; ‘normalize’ grew more than 15%).
So, is it cool to talk about mental health, anxiety, triggers among other things on dating apps? This World Mental Health Day, we caught up with Sonali Gupta, a clinical psychologist with over 16 years of experience to talk about the impact of the pandemic on mental health and current Gen Z behavior through the lens of dating.
Recently there was a global outage where social media apps crashed and people couldn’t connect with their loved ones. While it was troubling at first, many felt somewhat relieved and wished it didn’t come back at all. Is this a kind of trauma response in the aftermath of the pandemic and the information overload it brought along?
Last 18 months there has been a lot of uncertainty with the pandemic and most of us have felt overwhelmed and anxious to different degrees. With our lives limited to the screens, there has been an increase in doom-scrolling, information overload and constant news update, all of it has been exhausting. So an outage also allows people to not experience ( Fear of Missing out) when it comes to not being updated with news, new trends and also there is less pressure to feel productivity guilt in the context of being on top of news and even conversations. The outage did allow some people to feel that they now have the permission to stay away from their phones and even mindfully be present and not constantly multitask.
It has obviously been a challenging time for all of us. And now that we’re grappling with the ‘new normal’, what are the changed norms of dating among Gen Z? And how are they coping with it?
It has definitely been a hard and challenging year. Gen Z has over the last 18 months found creative and new ways to stay connected and also navigate dating whether it’s virtual dates, video chats or even choices in the context of who they are connecting where and in which location. Nearly half of Tinder members video chatted with a match during the pandemic and 40% members expressed their plans to continue using video to get to know people even when the pandemic is over.
Do you think isolation will potentially lead to more severe long-term mental health issues for the younger generation when it comes to intimacy?
The pandemic has led to a lot of young people feeling isolated, lonely and even devoid of community. As a therapist, my concern is that it will affect Gen Z’s narratives of self-esteem, anxiety and even sense of safety. It may be very essential that at a systemic level we work towards addressing these concerns around isolation and loneliness to create a safe world for Gen Z.
Is there a strong and definite shift in the ways that Gen Z approached relationships before and after the pandemic?
One of the key insights from Tinder’s Future of Dating and Season of Love Report is that dating is no longer about the familiar chronology or of slow courtship, instead, it has become fluid in terms of expectations, emotions and experiences. The report found that 62% of singles are not looking for a committed relationship and prefer friendships with romantic potential, casual dating, whilst remaining noncommittal in defining what they want. More people want to “see where things go.”
So even though the pandemic has significantly diminished opportunities of chance encounters and interactions, human connection particularly among Gen Z has continued to endure, unconstrained from rules of physical distance and barriers (both social and physical). They have creatively co-created and figured out new rules of meeting, hanging out and falling in love. Not surprising, knowing how Gen Z has always set their own pace, created their own rules and thrived despite limitations and COVID has only accelerated this ingenuity.
Today, Gen Z is big on digital dates. According to a recent survey, singles see virtual dates as a low-pressure way to get a sense of someone, with 68% finding it easier to make connections online and 67% finding it more liberating to meet new people this way. They understand that virtual experiences are here to stay and have embraced it. When you meet someone in person, it can be difficult to put your best foot forward, especially if the meeting is unexpected. But when you are on a dating app, you might discover that you have greater control over how you present yourself. 47% of Indian singles have said they feel more virtually creative today when compared to 2020 and 94% women have said they found dating apps useful to remain connected and meet new people. A lot of early initial dates have moved away from icebreakers to creating shared experiences over activities and reflecting the larger need for connection.
Online dating has seen an onward graph but are dating apps in India equipped enough to facilitate a safe space for the ‘young and restless?’
During the course of the pandemic, as the dating app space thrived, compelling millions of users to take to digital mediums and connect with one another, I have noticed apps innovating to help create safer experiences for its members. These range from introducing features that encourage vaccination to create an environment of trust with features like safety centers. Starting from a double-opt-in swipe feature where users can’t connect with another without mutual agreement is a great way of providing members with the freedom to choose who they want to interact with. It’s also much easier today than pre-pandemic to have autonomy in choice over who you want to interact with well after you have connected, through features such as Block contacts. Moreover features like Profile and Photo Verification are witness to how apps are taking increased responsibility to confirm that people present on the platform are who they say they are. “Does This Bother You?”, makes it easier for users to report offensive messages.
The latest campaign ‘Let’s Talk Consent’ is really notable in the way that it takes the safety experience from being merely in-app to offer people an understanding of the culture of consent and safety real-time. Moreover, by partnering with influential voices in the digital realm and collaborating with experts and non-profits in a bid to educate people about the nuances of consent, the dating app has managed to elevate conversations around consent and spark a real discourse around the subject; real enough to help foster a safe and healthy dating ecosystem.
A 2018 survey from the American Psychiatry Association found that millennials are by and large the most anxious generation. What are they most anxious about? And what kind of effects it could have on relationship building?
I do agree with the fact that millennials have faced unique concerns which in turn has added to their anxiety. In my book Anxiety : Overcome and live without fear I talk about how ‘The popular narrative of shaming millennials – calling them narcissists, entitled, snowflakes- is problematic and contributes to the overwhelming sense of anxiety that they struggle with’. Whether it’s technology, social media, micro-influencing, productivity guilt, the hustle culture and loneliness all of it has contributed to their anxiety. In my experience, there has been a normalization of work stress which is unhealthy and there is an increase in workplace anxiety. In my book, I also mention how :
‘Most millennials who start jobs by age twenty one reach their first burnout when they are about twenty six or twenty seven years old. Their second burnout is generally between the ages of twenty nine and thirty years. This is usually the time when most people reach out for help and almost believe in its legitimacy since they now feel that a decade of work has taken a toll on time’.
The anxiety that millennials are experiencing makes it extremely hard for them to invest in taking care of themselves and has repercussions on their sleep and also their relationships. The feeling of Impostor syndrome makes it very hard for them to trust themselves when it comes to work or relationships and as a result they struggle with self compassion.
The pandemic has made many averse to handshakes. How is Gen Z broaching the topic of sex in 2021?
What has changed is that there is a more mindful conversation around boundaries, where Gen Z is talking more openly about their vaccination status sometimes even taking a COVID test before they meet, openly discussing if they have any symptoms in the last week/few days and even discussing if they have been with other partners in the last few days : when it comes to sexual and physical intimacy.
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