Imagine this: you're walking through a bookstore in a crowded pre-pandemic shopping mall with two friends, struggling to follow a debate they're having. Anodyne eighties pop music flows from speakers overhead. As if on cue, a child drops a stuffed toy in front of you and the accompanying parent bends down to pick it up, knocking over a revolving magazine rack in the process. This minor literary disaster interrupts your friends' debate and sends a nearby clerk scrambling to salvage the magazines. You offer to help the clerk, but a gruff assistant manager waves you away. You play it cool, whispering to the clerk that magazines are a dying medium anyway. The clerk laughs. That's when you notice that this frazzled, conscientious clerk is in fact ridiculously attractive. The two of you lock eyes for a moment. Anything is possible.
Flash forward five minutes. You and your friends exit the store. You didn't ask for the clerk's number. You were not the hero in your own romantic comedy. You just sort of moved along. Which is usually what happens out in the world. We move along, constantly tugged, pushed and prodded by norms and expectations. Because bookstores were not built to help you make love connections.
Dating websites and apps, on the other hand, were built for that exact purpose: to facilitate connection, passion, romance. And according to Pew Research, these platforms have become more popular over time. It's not hard to see why. All sorts of people find it's easy to make connections using them, and the alternative — the real world — is a noisy, inhospitable place filled with cold-hearted assistant managers who will do everything in their power to purge the romance from their sales floors.
But how safe are dating websites and apps? It's a question that likely occurs to every honest online dater at some point, perhaps as they're uploading their profile picture or starting their first chat. Of the people Pew surveyed who claimed to have never used dating sites or apps, slightly more than half believed that online dating was at least somewhat unsafe. But does that belief line up with the facts? Well, not entirely.
If you've used the internet for a week or more — for any reason at all — you've probably come across the work of scammers and serial harassers. These two camps have infiltrated nearly every corner of the online world, and dating sites and apps have not been spared from their influence. But this doesn't mean that safe dating services don't exist, as those who maintain the best platforms are constantly working to protect decent, honest users from the not-so-decent ones. Their work — like Batman's efforts to save Gotham City — will never be finished, but it makes a big difference.
For users who are very concerned about safety when online-dating, it might be helpful to think about the various ways in which online dating is potentially safer than traditional alternatives. Consider this scenario: a man walks up to a woman at a cafe, says something witty. She laughs. He introduces himself — supplying only a first name — and asks if she'd like to go out sometime. She says yes and gives him her number. They part ways.
Not a terrible encounter for either party. But he should have given her a last name. With only a first name to go on, the woman won't be able to find out whether the man is a convicted murderer. Sure, she could ask for his last name when he texts or calls, but that would be awkward. And asking if he's a murderer may not elicit a serious response. So let's say she decides to put that off. What happens next? Will she have a chance to learn about his relationship with his family before the fateful outing? No! Because he wants to meet up tomorrow night! There's no time for loose conversation! It's do or die.
If these hypothetical strangers had met through a dating site or app, however, the structure of their experiences on the platform would have afforded the woman more opportunities to get to know the man. It's normal to ask for last names on dating sites and apps. Google's a click or a tap away, depending on your device. Why wouldn't you cross-check the rando who claims to be a doctor and world-class skier? If he really performed multiple life-saving surgeries in Papua New Guinea, then the internet is probably aware of him.
What is a safe online date? The short answer is that it depends on what stage of the process you're at. It's natural for your concerns to evolve as you move from the initial text-based chat to the IRL meeting. Because the risks tend to get bigger as you go. So put on your hard hat and goggles and consider the following safety tips on online dating.
Don't be afraid to get some mileage out of your chats. Remember: when you're online, it's okay to linger in that digital space with your would-be beloved. Ask tough questions. Share your favorite memes. If the person on the other end of the convo is genuinely interested in getting to know you, they won't try to rush this part. Think of it as a gauntlet made of text, and only a champion will get through.
The coronavirus pandemic changed the way our species thinks about video. For hundreds of millions of people, videoconferencing became a necessity in 2020. And in the dating world, one-on-one video chat went from being an added bonus to something resembling a main event. Which was not the worst thing for online-dating safety — for women and men alike. Getting romantic with webcams tends to be safer than the real thing, especially when a deadly coronavirus is spreading across the globe. Privacy warning: don't do anything in front of a webcam that you wouldn't want someone to record.
It's inevitable: you'll eventually tire of your screens. You'll dream of transitioning from the chat boxes of online dating to meeting in person. Safety should still be on your mind though. Therefore, when choosing a venue for the big date, make it someplace public. And try to meet your person during daylight hours if possible. Finally, tell a couple trusted friends and/or family members about your plans. Give them all the details — addresses, times, mode of transport, your date's name.
If you're committed to online dating — whether you're looking for something serious or not — you'll likely go through the process more than once. Which is to say that your first online love will probably not be your last. Hey, maybe you've been through it a couple times and feel as though you already know how to safely online-date — or at least that you know what works best for you. Fantastic. Just don't forget to factor in the other person's safety — and dignity — as well.