With our lives getting busier and busier, meeting people is becoming increasingly difficult. We have less and less free time to devote to our own needs, it seems, and the result is more and more single people who simply don’t have the time to find that special someone. This is what makes online dating so attractive. From the comfort of your own home (or even your own bed), you can do a little bit of “comparison shopping,” so to speak, where you get a chance to look at profiles of other people who, like you, just want to meet someone and make a partnership together. This convenient form of meetings is becoming increasingly popular, but it is also fraught with some dangers. Because there are so many people out there who are looking to run everything from scams to violent crime, though, it is just as important to be careful when dating online as it is to meeting people out and about.
One of the most common scams involves money, and particularly with regard to women. Often, women will fall in love with an online dating partner who lives on the other side of the country and simply needs some money. The man will first, though, start talking about how much he loves her and wants to meet her someday. The lonely women will fall victim to this trap and may send him a lot of money. There was one person named James Collins, who posed as a sergeant in the military and asked multiple women to send him money so that he could come and meet him. He was just one of many con artists out there trying to sponge money off lonely single women (Deery). In fact, in North Carolina alone, 36 people paid out $1.4 million in total to men who were conning women, pretending to be interested romantically (Deery).
Of course, money isn’t the only possible problem that can arise with online dating. There are some women who have fallen prey to sexual predators through online dating system. Many women are sexually assaulted by men whom they meet online, because the men show up at their homes at unexpected times and carry out brutal rapes. One of the best steps that you can take, of course, when talking to someone online, is to protect your personal information. Instead of giving that out to the people you are talking to, keep it to yourself. If you do decide to meet somewhere, make it a public place, and make it at a time when lots of other people will be around. Finally, let someone else know where you are going, and what time you expect to be back. This is a great way to protect yourself from the dangers of potential injury.
There are even worse people out there lurking online, of course. One of these is the sociopath. There are four steps that sociopaths go through when they are choosing victims: assessment, seduction, gaming and ruining (“Online Dating Dangers”). The assessment process happens when the sociopath is scrolling through dating profile after dating profile, choosing someone who will be the most likely to make a promising victim. Then, the seduction process begins. This can begin even before you know it as the victim, because once the sociopath has picked out your profile as a target, he may even rewrite his profile (or create a new one) to suit what you want. After all, a lot of these dating profiles ask people what they are looking for in a partner, which makes you ripe pickings for a sociopath. He will make his profile seem to be precisely what you want. Then, once he decides that you are right for him, he will start to game you. He will tell you that he has shut down his dating profile (and he may have shut down the one he set up to seduce you).
You might be wondering, of course, whether or not this is really something that is widespread, or if it is something that just happens to people who aren’t cautious online – or if it’s just a series of hoaxes that people make up. Many academics have put together studies about the perils of online dating, including research by Gibbs, Ellison and Lai (2011). This study looked a conceptual model that blends self-efficacy, concerns about privacy and experience with the Internet along with strategies for reducing uncertainty and managing self-disclosure, testing it on a group of 562 people who took part in online dating. This study began with a central assumption about the decisions that online daters make when it comes to disclosing personal information, which is a central element in the degree of risk that online dating represents. This assumption was that people who take part in online dating want to “present themselves as unique individuals within the constraints of a technical system that encourage[s] homogeneity, negotiating a desire to stand out with the need to blend in” (Ellison, Heino & Gibbs, web). One particularly poignant element of this desire is that, in quite a few ways, it represents a desire that is just about as old as humanity itself. One of the most challenging parts of dating involves finding that special someone who sees you just as you believe that you ought to be seen or, even better, in ways that you had not yet imagined for yourself. This is what gives the sociopath such power, because he can use your profile to find out, at least in a basic sense, what your vulnerabilities are, and then he can act as though he has the answer to all of those vulnerabilities when, in truth, he has nothing of the sort; instead, he becomes an emotional (and physical, in some cases) parasite who leaches the very life out of the people he stalks online. So one could argue that the people who take part in online dating simply want what everyone else who is already dating already has – a relationship in which they feel unique, special, adored, loved.
While another element of this assumption is that the technical platform associated with online dating requires homogeneity, it could also be argued that society itself pushes humanity toward a homogeneous condition, all the more so as our society becomes increasingly condensed. In the 1976 film Network, news anchor Howard Beale is outraged because of what he sees as a general bleaching of culture by corporate interests; he even gets his own talk show where he vents about these trends night after night, urging viewers to open their windows and yell, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” (Network). Eventually, though, the corporate interests, personified by network executive Arthur Jensen, decide that Beale has said enough. He coldly informs Beale that “[t]he world is a business[i]t has been since man crawled out of the slime. And our children will liveto see thatperfect worldin which there’s no war or famine, oppression or brutality” (Network). Looking at those claims from a standpoint almost four decades after the film, of course, the world still has all of those things, but the momentum toward homogeneity has not slowed a whit. And so when people try to write the perfect online dating profile that will set them out, even though their information will appear in the same template as everyone else’s, and even though they followed the same set of writing tips, they are looking to be different – and this is where vulnerability sets in.
Other research has shown that when people put up an online dating profile, they go through a “dynamic process of rewriting their profiles to better appeal to desired potential partners as well as developing rules for assess the credibility of others’ identity claims while recursively applying these rules to their own self-presentation” (Gibbs, Ellison and Lai, p. 72). In other words, when people write their own dating profiles, they tend to follow their own internal sets of rules about what they should reveal and what they shouldn’t – and what they would find credible in someone else’s profile. However, the purpose of the Gibbs et al. study was to explore what strategies online daters use to reduce uncertainty about the profiles of others. One difference between online communication and face-to-face conversations is that many of the cues that we use to analyze the motivations of other people are absent. Many dating websites allow for not only the exchange of emails but also a computer-supported chat service, offering protection through anonymity but also allowing the establishment of conversations. Researchers have found that interpersonal relationships do indeed grow through this sort of communication, because users find it possible to predict and understand the behavior of the party on the other end (Parks and Floyd). However, in the absence of the traditional cues, it is safe to say that a lot of those predictions and understandings become problematic. In a face-to-face conversation, both participants have access to a great deal of information in addition to the words that they hear. They get to evaluate such elements as gesturing, eye contact, posture and poise in enunciation. To chat with someone on the Internet, all someone needs to be able to do is use a keyboard. There is none of the pressure of an in-person conversation. Even in settings involving video chat, there is not the same element of intimacy as far as physical proximity goes. Because online dating features people with the goals of “meeting face-to-face and forming romantic relationships, [participants must make] themselves vulnerable by revealing intimate personal information” (Gibbs et al., p. 73).
Indeed, research finds that it is the “anonymity, shared interests, and lack of physical presence” that make online sharing of personal information easier to do than it would be in person” (Gibbs et al., p. 75). In other words, people who are sitting in their pajamas typing into a computer screen with a person whom they cannot see are more likely to share personal information than they would be with someone sitting next to them at a basketball game, sports bar, or museum. The absence of physical presence serves as an emotional relief, and the stress ebbs out of the situation. The end result is a greater willingness to share personal information, even though the risks of doing so with a stranger are just as high as they would be with talking to a stranger at a bar at a party. On the other side of the coin, though, Baker (2005) performed a study in which she found that the couples who built successful connections had engaged in self-disclosure that was open and free throughout the online dating process.
The Gibbs et al. study hypothesizes that there are three primary sets of concerns that lead to attempts to reduce uncertainty with regard to online dating: recognition, misrepresentation and personal security. The study focuses on strategies for reducing uncertainty because those sorts of activities gave people the ability to confirm claims that other people made about their own identity within an online context, which does not have many of the traditional methods for information transmission. With regard to uncertainty reduction, the study found that security concerns had the largest role in influencing the behaviors aimed at reducing uncertainty (Gibbs et al, p. 96). However, another ancillary assumption that Internet familiarity would have a connection with uncertainty reduction was not supported by the data. This suggests that strategies that people use in other forms of computer mediated communication, such as email, do not necessarily translate to dating online, and that just because people are savvy about information on the Internet in other areas are not necessarily going to use that wisdom when conducting dating activities online. People who use professional or social networks like Facebook or LinkedIn were more likely to use uncertainty reduction strategies (Gibbs et al, p. 90).
One factor that exposes online dating participants to additional risk is an ironic effect of using those uncertainty reduction strategies. People who use those, according to Gibbs et al., were more likely to reveal personal data about themselves – not just names and phone numbers, but also private feelings and thoughts. The researchers posited that this comfort comes from the fact that having used those strategies makes the participants feel less worry about revealing that type of information about themselves (Gibbs et al., p. 90). Of course, most of these strategies involve direct engagement with the potential dating partner, which in offline or online contexts would be the most common way to get information about someone whom one has just met. However, people who went outside simple interaction to reduce their uncertainty used public records (both online and offline) as well as the practice of social triangulation, which refers to talking to other individuals. The fact that finding a third party who knows both of the parties in an online dating situation, though, made relying on public records more frequent (Gibbs et al, p. 91).
In general terms, though, the risks involved in online dating are quite similar to those that have been a part of finding relationships as long as people have been trying to find relationships with one another. When Helen first met Paris, way back in ancient Greece, she had no way of knowing that he would be the more cowardly of the princes of Troy. The wife of a Greek king who was much older than her and who made a practice of taking mistresses every time he won a military battle, Helen was more than ready for an affair with a prince who was her age and who was the most handsome person she had ever seen. When he asked her to run away with him, she eagerly hopped aboard his ship and made for Troy, far across the Aegean Sea and (she must have thought) far enough away for her husband, Menelaus, to let her go. However, things went quite differently, as the outraged Menelaus rousted the other Greek kings and pursued her across that same sea, bringing war to Troy in order to bring her back. When the Greek armies first marched on Troy, the initial encounter featured a duel between Menelaus and Paris; had Paris not been under the protection of the gods, he would have died in that encounter, but instead he disappeared and was ferried back inside the citadel through divine magic. This enraged Menelaus and led to a war that would drag on for ten long years and end with the burning of the city (Homer). If Helen had known that Paris would not be able to fight well enough to defend her honor against the rage of her husband, and that the war would end with Helen heading back home to live with her husband, ten years older and sadder, she might have made a much different decision – even though she did not have to rely on a picture or a website to tell what Paris looked like or how much money he had.
The point of this anecdote is to emphasize that no matter what one knows about one’s potential dating partner, there are risks involved. On the Internet, people are more likely to give up information about themselves, particularly with regard to private emotions and thoughts, than they might otherwise, which makes them more vulnerable to sociopaths and scammers who are looking for a relationship that will provide quick sex, access to money or the chance to simply carry out emotional or physical abuse. Those have always been among the dangers of dating, but with the lack of nonverbal communication and the lack of caution that physical presence generally inspires, people have had more of a filter about what they share with others. The lesson that is even if one is looking on a dating website, and even if someone seems amazing in a chat room, it takes time to get to know the real identity of a person, and so one should act with caution when it comes to sharing information, let alone money or access to one’s heart.
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