Guidelines for moving from IRL to online dating.
In 2023, The Pew Center survey found that date app users were divided over whether their online dating experiences were positive or negative. In 2020, a Psychology Today study found that half of single people aren’t interested in having a relationship. Yet several NIH-published research studies continue to emphasize the opportunities that romantic relationships hold for promoting well-being among adolescents and emerging adults.
The dating game is certainly challenging and has been a mixed bag for some. Yet, with some updated understandings, there are opportunities to ensure both a safer experience and one that gives you more control within the rapidly evolving dating environment.
See online dating apps for what they are
Align your expectations to what apps can do. No one expects VRBO to be the vacation. Likewise, online dating apps are not the relationship. They are only a doorway to an IRL dating experience, not the dating experience itself. Assigning guardrails for when and how you use online vs. IRL dating will get you there.
Online dating can be good for
- Meeting people
- Evaluating extrinsic ideals
- Sparking connections
IRL dating can be good for
- Evaluating intrinsic ideals
- Exploring a person’s effect or influence on you
- Discovering authentic connections
Develop a dating system
In her 2019 manuscript, “Swiping Right: Alcohol, Online Dating, and Sexual Hook-ups in Post-College Women,” Emily Wilhite cites that those who use online dating apps range from looking for marriage (49%) to simply looking for hook-ups (47%). Having a system to maneuver through the dateingscapes that don’t have what you are looking for can be a time and energy saver. Root your system in your own purpose. Formulate a balance between staying open-minded and keeping yourself grounded and safe.
Dating system tips
- Do your research on which dating app is for you and learn how to use it.
- Take the time to develop your profile and picture into something that accurately reflects you but doesn’t speak to you. Instead, speak to the type of person you want to attract.
- Limit how many love interests you pursue at one time. Give yourself the time and mental space to go deeper.
- Make dating an experiential and feeling process. Ensure that you get what you want out of it. Watch when things don’t feel good and be aware of emotional and behavioral red flags.
- Set criteria for when to end relationships and commit to following through.
Avoid bad behavior, scammers, predators
As online dating popularity soars to 51 million Americans and 300 million people worldwide (Statistica, 2021), so does bad behavior, fraud and criminality.
In a 2019 survey, Pew Research Center found that 60% of women online reported repeated contact after they said they weren’t interested. Another 57% reported being sent unsolicited sexually explicit pictures or images. Forty-four percent reported being called an offensive name; 19% reported being threatened with physical harm.
In 2021, the US Federal Trade Commission estimated that over $547 million was lost to dating fraudsters as bots and fake profiles targeted, lured and conned people into theft and blackmail.
In one of the largest studies of its kind, Brigham Young University reports that 14% of rapes committed by acquaintances occurred during an initial meetup arranged through a dating app. The research also found that women with mental illnesses and other vulnerabilities were targeted, and the attacks were significantly more violent than IRL acquaintance rapes.
Still, 60% of people online report having positive experiences. Safety is never 100% guaranteed, not even in IRL, but there are ways to avoid the 40% of the dating sphere experiencing manipulation, harm and crime.
When interacting online
- Use a different photo for your dating profile that is not used anywhere else online. This makes it harder for someone to do a reverse image search and find your other online accounts.
- Don’t share any personal information until well into your match, including phone, birthdate or address, even if it is to send you a gift.
- Steer away from profiles that have no bio, a few photos or no comments.
- Conduct your background search. Google your match’s name and check out their social profiles. Engage with a service such as Garbo for a low-cost deeper dive.
- Block and report anyone whom you deem suspicious, harassing or offensive at any point during the match.
Watch for red flags
The first step in any manipulation is to gain your trust and sympathy. Look for signs of bots, fake profiles and phishing. Be aware that chats, texts and emails can get screenshotted. Phone calls and video chats can be recorded without consent or knowledge. Conducting conversations in ways that would not be harmful if the conversation were made public can save heartache.
Here are common signs of trouble:
- Recently created profiles that are incomplete or have ‘just enough’ details with few connections, comments or activities. This slideshow speaks more about how to spot fake profiles.
- Writing that is educated and intelligent yet contains grammar mistakes and strange word choices.
- Quick communication progressions or excessive compliments.
- References to living overseas temporarily.
- Lots of questions about you but vague on details about themselves.
- Big stories with lots of details, twists and tragedies.
- Avoidance of phone calls, video chats or meet-ups.
- Requests for money or purchase requests, particularly if accompanied by urgent, heart-wrenching crises.
- Requests for photographs, especially those that are sexual or intimate.
Understand that you never have to tolerate harassing, offensive or intimidating messages and can cut off communication anytime. Make sure to put your physical and mental health first rather than worrying about being rude or inconsiderate.
Plan for in-person meet-ups
The whole point of online dating is to convert to IRL dating. This makes the first meet-up inevitable. Do keep in mind that you are meeting up with a stranger. Scheduling a video chat or phone call before you meet can give a sense of whether the meet is safe and worth your time (remember, your date has opportunities to record your call and video without your knowledge). Repeated objections to a call or chat are red flags for suspicious activity.
When you meet, screenshot your date’s profile to a friend. Tell them when and where you are going. Arrange a mid-date check-in. Meeting someone at a public place and refraining from excessive drinking are good practices. Trust your instincts and don’t be afraid to alert others if you need help or feel unsafe. Again, put your physical and mental health first rather than worrying about seeming rude or inconsiderate.
Learn about online scams
As online dating popularity soars so do scams and scammers. Women are the most likely to fall for scams and few victims get their money back. Scams are also not necessarily lone-wolf operations. Crime syndicates have found scams to be big business. Sometimes it is a small group of enterprising thieves with a bit of tech know-how.
Here are a few scam narratives:
- Malware scams. Scammers work to solicit an email address to send a non-threatening or inviting link. Sometimes the malicious link is in their bio. After clicking, spyware creeps the victim’s desktop for personal and account information.
- Fake persona money scam. Whether the person is a military, an ex-pat or a widower with children, they quickly move the relationship along and then report some sudden, tragic event that requires a money transfer. Storylines include the need for travel expenses, food, housing or medical care. Requests for overseas money transfers are a tell.
- Blackmail scams. Here the scammer slowly but steadily maneuvers the victim into increasingly compromising behavior, capturing photos or screenshots to eventually extort money for not going public.
Never hesitate to contact the police for any harassment, fraud or violence. And remember that the manipulation and bad behavior of others is never your fault.
There is no such thing as a risk-free environment. Whether navigating online or IRL, each world holds potential and danger. Leaning in and leveling up will work to put you in with those who find positive experiences and, maybe, even a fulfilling marriage.