For teens and young adults, more and more of everyday life takes place in digital spaces: in apps, websites, texting, and social media platforms. Increasingly, this includes dating apps and websites, digital spaces where young people can date and form intimate and romantic relationships. Most of the major dating apps claim to be only for people 18 and older, but the truth is that many teens still use these apps – or use apps specifically intended for teens.
While certain aspects of online dating may be presumed dangerous, taking proper precautions when meeting and connecting with people on the internet can allow for healthy and meaningful connections! Below you’ll find five things you can do to be safer and more comfortable while dating online. The tips are drawn from organizations and networks that support safe and healthy relationships and work to prevent intimate partner violence.
What is dating?
According to Garbo¹:
“‘Dating’ can mean different things to different people, especially as the traditional definition of ‘dating’ is constantly developing and expanding. Conventional ‘dating’ constitutes two people in an intimate relationship. Although ‘dating’ implies a sexual aspect to the relationship, it does not have to be. Dating can be serious, casual, monogamous, open, polygamous, short-term or long-term.”
Safety Tip #1: Create a safety plan
Before you start looking for relationships online, it’s important to have a plan to keep yourself safe. Your safety plan can include:
- Turning off location tracking on your phone.
- Knowing when and how to block someone.
- Avoiding sharing personal information like your exact address, bank information, license plate, social security number (SSN), etc.
- Documenting any alarming or threatening messages.
Just being aware and mindful of the various dangers that can come up when using online dating apps, and using the internet in general, is a huge first step to make the experience safe and positive.
Safety Tip #2: Be aware of suspicious profiles and report accordingly
While we want to believe that everyone using dating platforms is being honest about their identity, it’s not uncommon for people to use different profile pictures and ages to reach a certain audience. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), you should be suspicious of user profiles that:
- Don’t have a bio or a profile picture
- Only have one photo uploaded
- Have no linked social media accounts²
Not all fake accounts have these red flags though, so you should always be cautious when deciding to connect with someone and, most importantly, trust your instincts. If it looks suspicious, or you feel off about it, then it probably is!
You can always block or report a user if their profile is suspicious or if they have acted inappropriately². Reporting the user after suspicious or inappropriate behavior can help keep other people safe from potential harm in the future as well.
Safety Tip #3: Pay attention to mysterious engagement or controlling behavior
Mysterious engagement can come in the form of someone lying, not responding for a few weeks without explanation, controlling or manipulating the conversation, or asking you to share details about yourself without providing much in return. These could all be potential warning signs that you aren’t getting the whole truth about someone. Mysterious engagement behaviors should be a signal to proceed with caution or seek clarifying information.
Controlling behavior might include pressuring you in initial conversations to share photos of yourself that aren’t already part of your profile or demanding that you share personal or private information too quickly. If someone is quick to list required traits or things they want in their partner, this may be a red flag as well. A potential partner shouldn’t try to change you or make you feel like you can’t be yourself, and both parties should contribute to information sharing and connection forming.³
Safety Tip #4: Practice digital consent
Engaging in sexual activity on screens, such as sexting or sending nude images, is potentially risky and can put you in a vulnerable position. But if you choose to do it, all participants should give their digital consent first.
The National Sexual Violence Resources Center (NSVRC) defines digital consent as sexual consent that happens through screens.⁴ NSVRC identifies the following ways to practice digital consent and honor boundaries:
- Ask permission before sending explicit messages or texts.
- Respect the decisions of others once you ask. It’s never okay to coerce or pressure someone to send photos or record sexual acts. If someone says no after you ask for digital consent, respect their choice and move on.
- Understand that everyone has boundaries around meeting up in real life. If you’ve met online or on an app, make sure you both agree on the next steps and feel safe and comfortable with meeting up in person. Regardless of what others expect, everyone has the right to decide what’s best for them and to act on those values.
- Ask each time. Getting digital consent is important every time – even if your partner agreed to something before, they aren’t obligated to agree to do it again.
If you feel pressured or forced to participate in conversations or sexual activities while online dating, this is a red flag that you should seriously address before you agree to meet up with the person in real life. (For more on consent, read our post: Consent Part 2: Talking with middle school-aged youth about consent.)
Safety Tip #5: Prioritize safety when meeting in person
Before meeting up in person for the first time, it’s a good idea to set up a video chat. Meeting in a video chat/Facetime allows you to ensure that the person you’ve been chatting and connecting with virtually is actually who they say they are. If they’re against video chatting before meeting in person, it could be a sign that something’s up and that they’re not being truthful about who they are.²
It’s always a good idea to tell one or more friends where you’re going and provide them with information about who you’re meeting. RAINN suggests taking a screenshot of the person’s profile and letting your friend or family know your location. And if you end up going to a different place or area, send them a text to update.
If you feel comfortable and have the ability to do so, you can also share your location on your phone with a trusted person so that they can occasionally monitor your location throughout the date to make sure nothing seems suspicious. Plan to meet in public for the first few dates, drive or get dropped off separately, and stick to places where you feel comfortable going. Lastly, don’t feel pressured to drink or do drugs during a first date, even if your date is.²
Making online dating safe and rewarding
The internet and social media can be exciting spaces for teens and young adults to connect with one another, share common interests, and express themselves. Online dating can provide a sense of belonging and togetherness for many people, creating community and expanding the possibilities for who you might be able to engage with.
While online dating can lead to meaningful and long-term relationships, dating sites can also pose potential risk. These five safety tips, along with others, are incredibly important to keep in mind to ensure you have the most rewarding and safe experience while navigating the world of online dating.
If you’ve experienced harassment, abuse, or violence while online dating or meeting up in person, it’s not your fault. If you need support, please refer to the following resources:
Solid Ground’s Broadview Emergency Shelter and Transitional Housing provides confidential temporary housing for parents and their children experiencing homelessness due to domestic violence. We provide 24-hour trauma-informed support services to help families meet their immediate needs and move forward with their goals. Our team of housing counselors, child advocates, domestic violence/legal advocates and specialized service providers partner with residents as they work to secure permanent housing, heal from trauma, and increase self-sufficiency and stability.
Domestic Violence Help in Seattle/King County
Call 206.299.2500 for Solid Ground’s confidential Domestic Violence shelter services and/or 2.1.1 toll-free at 1.800.621.4636, M-F, 8am-6pm for info about all King County resources.
National Domestic Violence Hotline
1.800.799.7233 or TTY 1.800.787.3224
English – Online chat is available 24/7/365.
Español – Póngase en contacto con nuestros asesores altamente capacitados las 24 horas, 7 días de la semana y reciba el apoyo que merece. Chat en Español esta disponible cada cuando el botón de chat está en rojo.
Resources for Youth
Get relationship help | love is respect advocates are available 24/7/365. We offer confidential support for teens, young adults, and their loved ones seeking help, resources, or information related to healthy relationships and dating abuse in the US.
OUTSpoken Speakers Bureau & Youth Programs | The NW Network offers a wide range of supports to lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, and questioning youth and young adults (13-24) around issues of violence and crime such as dating violence, bullying, hate violence, physical and sexual assault, exploitation, theft, police harassment, and experiences in the sex trades.
- Garbo: Modern Dating Tips for the Digital Age
- RAINN: Online Dating and Dating App Safety Tips
- One Love: 6 Things to Look Out For When Online Dating 6 Things to Look Out For When Online Dating
- NSVRC: Digital Consent, Boundaries, and Everyday Online Consent
Images above are from NSVRC SAAM Graphics.