From all the memes that have reached me through my screen since the outbreak of the corona pandemic, there is one that perfectly reflects my thoughts in the beginning of March 2020. It’s a black square with in white the text: “Me: I think I’m ready to date again…  The universe : oh yeah? *releases world-wide virus preventing all human interaction* Me: well played.”.

Since that time, I’m living my life online. Like most people, I have become a fulltime screenager stuck at home due to COVID-19. Only last week I spent a daily average of 6 hours and 49 minutes a day on screens. My house has become an office, an occasional festival site, a yoga studio, a gym, therapist’s practice, a bar, and occasionally a club. I organized a book club on Zoom, joined an eccentric dance work out on Instagram, looked for matching dance partners in a Distance Disco, celebrated a hen party on Houseparty, and I’m swiping through dopamine shots looking for my soul mate on Tinder.

I’m swiping through dopamine shots looking for my soul mate on Tinder.

Practicing social distancing, or extreme collective non-voluntary dopamine fasting, has left me with a strange and ambiguous feeling of being hyperconnected online to people from all over the world, and physically disconnected with my loved ones close by. As much as the internet helps me connect, it serves as the que that draws my attention to the things that I miss the most: offline, IRL, physical human contact and touch. The uncertainty of when I will be able to date again. With the end of every online activity or videocall, I realize how much I miss my co-workers, friends and family. It gives me a weird surrealistic sensation, like something didn’t really happen.

The longing for human touch is called skin hunger (psychologists are also talking about touch deprivation). Since the corona crisis, articles on skin hunger and expressions of touch deprivation are popping up on the internet. Humans are not only social species but also touching animals. We need to touch and be touched by other humans. But skin hunger is not something of the last few months. Before social isolation in times of COVID-19, there were already articles in which the western dislike of physical touch was analyzed, a western crisis of touch that mainly affects men. Causes of skin hunger are linked to being socially isolated, social media usage instead of physical face-to-face interactions, and fears about sexual abuse and harassment that have made touching someone no longer feel safe, even resulting in no-hugging policies. Today a virus that has caused the whole planet to live solitary lives can be added to this list.

Could technology help us overcome skin hunger in times of contactless living?

Touching and being touched are a basic human need. A lack of touch makes us vulnerable, because touch positively influences our immune system, the regulation of our hormones and mental health. Touch relaxes our nervous system by slowing down our heart rate and blood pressure, releasing cortisol, and increasing serotonin levels which is our body’s natural antidepressant, as this article describes. It also regulates the body’s white blood cell production which helps fight infections and flu symptoms. Sounds exactly like what we need right now, but we are not allowed to get. Could technology help us overcome skin hunger in times of contactless living?

Before corona, the deficit of touch has already given rise to a touch industry. Cuddle Comfort is a social network for people wanting to cuddle without romantic expectations. At Cuddle Up To Me you can buy yourself a hug session, due to the coronavirus outbreak the cuddlers are now available for everyone in the world, but only online. If you’re in need for a virtual hug you can try this ASMR hug session on YouTube. And in search for a cure for loneliness, people in Japan have designed ‘a tranquility chair’ that wraps its arms around you for a robotic embrace, an anime-inspired VR-companion for toward those who prefer the company of a virtual partner, anti-loneliness cafes, rent-a-friend services, and cat and bunny cafés. While some might find it comforting, I don’t think my skin hungriness can be replaced by a ‘revolutionary bracelet that sends touch over distance’ or a t-shirt that lets you send virtual hugs.

I don’t think my skin hungriness can be replaced by a t-shirt that lets you send virtual hugs.

Personally, after a month of no-touching, I decided to have a quarantine friend to hug every now and then. A calculated risk that benefits both our mental health. I believe that a crisis should be a moment of reflection that can eventually lead to something better. This situation has already created more space for discussions and research (please join) on skin hunger and loneliness. We were already living in a touch-averse world. This crisis is a chance to recover the social power of touch. Because, as this article points out, the fabric of society is held together by even the smallest physical contact: “Touch is as important a social condition as anything … It reduces stress. It makes people trust one another. It allows for cooperation. When you look at people in solitary confinement suffering from touch deprivation, you see that people lose a sense that someone’s got their back, that they’re part of a community and connected to others.”

If you’re asking me what the lockdown is doing to my dating life? Well nothing, it’s nonexistent. Unfortunately for now, swiping is the new touching. But for me, swiping feels useless without the opportunity to meet someone soon IRL. Tinder fobs us off with a temporarily free Passport feature that lets you swipe through people from all over the world. Making me feel even more sad of the thought of when I’ll ever be able to travel again, I deleted Tinder. It has never been designed to find love anyways. Tinder was designed to keep you swiping, and I’ll probably re-install it tomorrow in need for a dopamine shot. When everything is closed and cancelled, I need a better strategy. So, if you’re a Next Nature Network fan like me, we share some interest. Curious? Slide into my DM to go on a 1.5-meter distanced walk.

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