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Meeting People Online: How to Play It Safe

More and more teens are going online to meet new people. Meeting people online can put you in touch with people all over the world who have lots of different backgrounds and interests.

The Web can also put you in touch with people that may have more in common with you than a lot of the people in your real world. And connecting with all these folks may be less nerve-wracking than meeting people face-to-face. You don’t have to worry about awkward pauses, bad breath, or other first-date killers. You have a chance to give — and get — a first impression that goes deeper than “hot or not.”

But meeting people online can also have its dangers. Here’s what you need to know before you log on.

The Downers

Because there’s no face-to-face contact online, you can never be sure that people are who they say they are. That 17-year-old you’ve been chatting with for weeks could actually be a group of 11-year-olds messing with you — or even worse, a 49-year-old preying on unsuspecting teenagers.

Another bummer is there’s a chance you’ll be cyberstalked or flamed when the relationship ends. The angry ex may fill your inbox with nasty or threatening messages, IM you anytime you log on, or “follow” you to sites and start flame wars. She or he may even post private things you’ve written, reveal your contact info, or post your photos to different sites.

Safety Online

If you’re thinking about meeting people online, there are ways to make the experience safer. Parry Aftab, an internet privacy and security lawyer, and executive director of WiredSafety.org and WiredTeens.org offers these tips:

1. Don’t disclose personal info. “You’ve got to assume the person on the other end is a predator,” Aftab says. That means not giving out your real name, address, school’s name, or place of work — or any personal information about your friends or family. Also, create a new e-mail account — one that doesn’t include your name or any other personal info. “Set up a disposable account for this relationship,” Aftab suggests. “Then if anything goes wrong, you won’t have to worry about someone stalking you. You just abandon that e-mail address.”

2. Play doctor. Photos that disclose your identity can be dangerous, and online predators sometimes post even G-rated photos on pornographic Web sites. If you really want to share a photo, make sure it doesn’t reveal your identity. “Use photo-editing software to pixilated it or turn it into a sketch,” Aftab recommends.

3. Look out for red flags. Beware of people who

  • can’t keep their story straight
  • initiate sexual conversation
  • don’t know the answers to questions most teens know
  • pressure you to send photos or meet in person
  • ask you for more information than you’re comfortable giving out

Safety Offline

If you decide to meet someone in person, keep the following tips in mind:

1. Go public. Always meet in a highly public place, like a mall, fast-food restaurant, or coffee shop — never at the person’s house or apartment. Ask what the person will be wearing. Arrive early, and camp out in a discreet spot. Then you can figure out whether the person is really a teen — before she or he sees you.

2. Bring backup. When you meet, bring a friend or group of friends, and tell your parents where you’re going.

3. Find your own ride. Leave on your own, or go home with your friends — never get in a car with the person you’ve met online, even if you feel like you can trust her or him — it’s just too soon to know for sure.

The Web can be a great way of connecting with people who share your interests or problems — a source of community and support that may be hard for you to find in the “real world.” Whether you’re online or offline, just make sure to follow your intuition and be careful.

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