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Online Dating Magazine > Columns > Editorials > February 2011

Online Dating Safety

by James Houran, Ph.D.

(February 2011) It’s been a while since my last editorial, but it’s great to be back.

In my time away, my team has conducted much research and spoken with a myriad of online daters about the state of the industry and how well the format is working for them.

Online dating is no longer some obscure, social practice – it’s an acceptable, mainstream way to find romantic prospects. That said, unfortunately there’s still the need for “Online Dating Safety Awareness Month.”

Here a stigma, there a stigma…
What online dating safety has meant has changed over the years. In other words, what the public has been concerned about with online dating has not remained entirely consistent.  When the Internet was just getting started the major stigma was that online daters were naïve for using the medium. It was believed that the net was full of nasty predators and malcontents all of whom were searching cyberspace for unsuspecting victims. Sure there were example of bad things happening to some people, but the Internet was hardly the breeding ground for tragedies that was wholly different than the offline, real world.  So the “you’ll meet a serial murderer” stigma eventually gave way to the stigma of “only losers use online dating sites.” 

But, many studies over the years have shown that online dating is popular among many, many different demographic groups around the world. That’s a long-winded way of saying that many people – including popular individuals of high status – use online dating. But, the negative stigmas didn’t entirely die. Soon, pervasive identification theft and other types of money-related Internet crimes were happening. This, combined with the fact that the web does offer a great deal of anonymity for users, prompted new concerns about online truthfulness and limited identity verification. After all, many online daters are married although this isn’t routinely disclosed and misleads singles who are looking for a serious, committed relationship.  Therefore, there was a huge push for legislation in the United States that called for dating sites to disclose whether or not they conducted background checks on members. The issue lead to contentious debate, which eventually died as did the notion of a wide-sweeping implementation of background checks by dating sites. 

Most dating sites rightly provide safety tips and tactics – both for online interaction and offline contact. Still the majority of online safety resides in the common sense and awareness of online daters themselves. And it is in this area that safety-mindedness should be reinforced and expanded.

Dating is decision making
Many bad dating decisions could be avoided if daters would examine how they make decisions in their love lives to begin with. Too often, people operate on “auto-pilot” and make choices that are familiar and comfortable, but which repeat bad patterns. People would rather go with the “known” versus the “unknown” almost every time.

That said, there are two basic types of decision making tactics:  snap judgment and contemplation.  Snap judgments are spontaneous actions based on what feels good or seems right at first glance. You know them as the “go with your gut” philosophy.  Contemplation involves a slower appraisal of information and then a careful review of options. The tricky part is that problems arise when people go to the extreme with either tactic.

Let’s take an example with one relationship variable that often matters to men and women:  economic status.  One indicator people use to gauge the economic status of a person is that individual’s level of education.  You might think that the higher the education achieved by someone, the more desirable they would be to prospects – all other things being equal.  Well, my research suggests that’s not necessarily so. Women tend to be wary of most men online because they feel they’re after one thing – regardless of education level.  And men tend to wary of women because they think there must be something wrong with her if she has to use online dating to find someone. Education level doesn’t do much to minimize those stereotypes. For instance, when a person is seen as having too little education, they might be labeled as “underachieving” or downright “idiotic.”  Having too much education might actually raise suspicions. I’ve seen it happen… a doctorate level person was asked by his female date why he’s using online dating – after all someone of his intelligence and status surely wouldn’t need it!  In both cases, low or high education level might also give someone a false sense of security: little formal education doesn’t mean you’re smarter than the other person and too much formal education doesn’t mean that person is a trustworthy person.

So, the best safety advice I can given to online daters above and beyond the well known safety tips is to examine seriously the way you make decisions about people online, and to minimize snap judgments whenever possible. Online interaction has the major advantage of limiting the pace of interactions… and a slower pace allows for more contemplation versus rash actions made in the heat of the moment. Feelings of euphoria and excitement that come with dating and falling in love are a double-edged sword.  They make us feel great, but they can motivate us to act with blinders on.

The bottom line…
Don’t judge dating sites or the people who use them by their “cover.”  Carefully research sites before joining and using one, and be more contemplative when contacting and interacting with other online daters. Truly think before you act… and think outside the moment.

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