Exploring virtual romance

By

Robert Ewing

Romance can be part of the college social experience, and it has looked very different this year. Social distancing and a lack of public social events have been challenging worldwide, but especially on college campuses that are used to large social outings like sporting events and concerts. Adolescents and young adults have experienced disproportionally worse mental health outcomes since the beginning of COVID-19.

All is not bleak romantically, however, as dating apps have been skyrocketing in popularity, with the Match Group reporting that across its 45 apps, such as Match, Hinge and Tinder, use has increased by 30% since March 2020.

Thao Ha is an expert on relationships and transitions within the adolescent and young adult life cycle, and director of the Heart Lab at Arizona State University. Ha is a recent recipient of the rising star award from the Association for Psychological Science for promising young faculty in the field of psychology and the Young Scientist Award from the International Society for the Study of Behavioral Development. She has been conducting innovative research on the development of adolescent romantic relationships and the impact of social media on dating.

This spring, she is also teaching the Navigating Romantic Relationships course for undergraduate students and the Romantic Relationships in Development course for graduate students and has been creating new and exciting ways for her class to understand the material.

“I was searching for new ways to engage students in the course materials,” said Ha. “So I decided that it would be fun to have students compete to write a featured op-ed for ASU on the subject of Valentine’s Day. Students would learn how to communicate research to a broad audience and would enjoy the rewarding aspect of being featured, something that is not a typical outcome of a course assignment.”

Students worked in groups to formulate topics that related to the material in Ha’s course, and ranged from setting expectations for first-time intimacy, to the long term mental and cognitive impacts of long-distance relationships in a pandemic, to effective tips for managing a COVID-19-safe Valentine’s Day celebration. At the final stage of the assignment, the students presented their material virtually, and winners were voted upon by their peers.

“I was so pleased at how students showed extensive creativity and energy in these virtual presentations of their op-eds. There was music, funny GIFs, poetry and much more. They were also very supportive of their fellow students' presentation, providing constructive feedback for some final improvements,” Ha said.

Undergraduate student winners Anisha Mehra, Emma Cain, Jasmin Ray, Trinity Strecker and Nisi Jara-Aguirre presented a visual presentation called “Love Me Tinder,” depicting the intricacies of finding love on dating apps and the motivations behind behaviors on the apps. One of the key points they emphasized was that while men and women approach Tinder differently, almost half of the users are looking for long-term matches, rather than just the short term.

“We found it to be astounding how the power dynamic really shifts back to women in the world of online dating. For every 100 matches that men receive, women receive 600, effectively allowing women to be far more selective,” said Strecker, a junior psychology major who plans on pursuing a PhD in clinical psychology.

While dating apps were considered taboo a decade prior, they are now almost ubiquitous with how students engage and interact with potential partners in the modern age.

“Almost everyone uses these apps and we just thought this was a fun topic to discuss the motivations surrounding Tinder,” said Jara-Aguirre, a senior psychology and biology double major.

Read “Love me Tinder.”

Graduate students Erika Pages and Carley Vornlocher presented an op-ed titled “Are They Really the One?”, detailing pair-bonding and finding true love, and the mechanisms behind long-term mate selection.

Pages and Vornlocher are graduate students in the social psychology PhD program and conduct research as members of the SPLAT lab with Associate Professor Lani Shiota. Pages’ research interests stem around the role that humor plays in mental health and close relationships, and Vornlocher hopes to conduct research on positive psychology and emotion regulation. 

“We wanted to think about who has been successfully dating during the pandemic and what qualities are in those relationships,” Pages said. “What was surprising is that we found that believing in soul mates is bad for relationships because when things inherently go wrong, relationships then fail.”

Instead, Pages and Vornlocher suggest that the research encourages more of a growth mentality as a precursor to a more successful relationship. 

“Even though there are these archetypes of relationships, we should be more understanding of how loving relationships are really a process and not an immediate thing we achieve,” Vornlocher said.

Read “Are They Really the One?”