The first time Long Beach City College student Ben Fernandez met up with someone that he met online, he lost his virginity.
“We met at his place and we went to his basement,” Fernandez said. “I was scared that he was going to kill me.”
While Ben’s story is jarring, many young people today are increasingly using social media and online sites as a primary means to meet and date. There is no argument that participation in online dating, casual hookups, and other relational activity via technology is increasing, and the users are becoming younger.
Since the early 2000s, at least a dozen dating websites have been created especially for youth ages eighteen and under, including MyLOL, which has over 250,000 teens registered, according to their listing on Entrepreneur.com.
While online dating is moving towards becoming the norm, it does not necessarily make it safer.
In 82 percent of online sex crimes against minors, the offender used the victim’s social networking site to gain information about the victim’s likes and dislikes, according to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
VoiceWaves surveyed some young people in Long Beach about the potential dangers of dating online, with their stories detailed below.
To Meet or Not to Meet…in Person
Most people don’t think of Facebook as a dating site. But because many dating sites require that users are at least 18 years of age, many young people have adapted Facebook as somewhat of a make-shift dating site, according to some students at Millikan High School who did not want to be named.
Online dating has become more common with youth who have been found adding people as friends on Facebook they don’t already know, carrying on conversations, and meeting them in person.
Some users have been using social media sites like Facebook and Myspace as tools for dating for a long time. Susan Belfona*, a student at California State University, Long Beach, admitted that she used Myspace a few years ago for this purpose.
“I think like when I was around 18 and I met somebody off MySpace and I invited them to my house, Belfona said. “That was a no-no,” she said.
While nothing happened to her, but she realizes that she put herself in a dangerous position. “I’m still here to talk about it.” [Laughs] “I’ve been fortunate but I know that [isn’t] always the case.”
I See You: Dating Apps with Maps
Obviously there are many uncomfortable, awkward, and even dangerous situations that people go through to find a partner. But these days, while finding someone using GPS dating apps are making it easier, the potential for weird interactions are also higher.
Nineteen-year-old Nicholas Toledo revealed his experiences talking to a certain person through a dating application, “I thought he was attractive, I saw him nearby… I sent a message saying ‘hey what’s up’ and you could see the message got read. About a week or so later, I see him again, send another message, and he sends back ‘you absolutely [expletive] disgust me.”
But despite the negative consequences of online dating, people still participate. “I don’t think there’s [anything] wrong with it,” Belfona said about the stereotype of online dating, “And I’ve never had any issues with it. I can see how people might be a little skeptical but for the most part everybody is normal,” she added.
What to Do When Meeting Online: A VoiceWaves Safety Guide
If you’ve seen the show Catfish, you know that when using websites as a tool to build relationships, you run the risk of meeting someone who is lying about their identity. Many websites, including the teen-specific sites, have no way to screen each profile.
PrivacyRights.org put together a fact sheet called The Perils and Pitfalls of Online Dating: How to Protect Yourself, where they state, “Online dating, perhaps because it speaks to our fondest hopes, opens the door to certain vulnerabilities.” Even when vulnerable, it is necessary to be equipped with tools to protect safety.
“When people tell you to watch who you meet online, they mean it. For all you know, they could be a serial killer or a rapist,” concludes Toledo.
According to a study by the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, most offenders build relationships with their victims, communicating with them for at least a month before meeting in person. Even if you think you know about the person you’re meeting, there are some simple measures you can take:
- Know your comfort zone. “Don’t ever agree to something if you don’t feel comfortable doing it,” shares Toledo. “In terms of what you want and what you don’t want, don’t ever shy away from saying what you feel like you need to say. If you feel too intimidated, or if you feel like you can’t say anything because the other person might act adversely, then that’s a signal that you might want to just leave.”
- Travel in numbers. “Of course you always want to be in a public place. And if you can be with somebody else, be with somebody else,” said Belfona.
- Screen and review people you’re meeting. Belfona has gotten messages from people on Facebook who seemed sketchy. In those instances, she has just ignored them. Belfona tries not to put herself in bad situations. Take her lead.
Know the risks and prepare for them. It is better to take all measures to ensure safety than to be ill prepared for brining online relationships to real life. Online dating can be dangerous but it can also lead to healthy relationships. Belfona has been witness to this. “I am still friends with people I met online two years ago.”