It’s no secret that online and app-based dating has become increasingly popular. What used to be known as a cyber wormhole for the dark and desperate is now a $2 billion industry in the United States with a worldwide user penetration of 7.4%.
As this modern dating style gains more traction globally, questions are rising about just how safe online dating really is. On one side, it offers a safe way to establish first contact without meeting, reducing the possibility of physical abuse. However, it has its own flaws. Online dating has made people vulnerable to forms of digital harassment and stalking where it’s difficult to take legal action.
Even with these potential risks, many see online dating as just part of the protocol. Like Andrea Silenzi. Andrea is the host and producer of Why Oh Why, a show about dating and relationships, and has been dating online for a decade now.
“I feel incredibly safe with online dating,” she says. “It just feels like the way dating is done in 2017. I can’t imagine trying to meet people without all the existing tools available.”
Taking Precautions Before Meeting IRL
While Andrea’s experience with online dating has been mostly positive, that isn’t without precautions. Establishing safety measures before meeting someone face-to-face is crucial. And according to Andrea, vetting these worries should also take place in the digital sphere.
“I think it’s important to do your most important safety precautions over text message and through google searches before the date,” she explains. “If your date doesn’t have an online presence, and they reply to your text messages in a way that feels alarming or confusing, then don’t go on the date.”
If you sift through news articles about online dating from before 2010, you’ll likely see the advice, ‘tell the people closest with you about where you’ll be going.’ That advice still holds merit in some situations, but Andrea would argue that it’s a red flag in and of itself: “If you’re so nervous about meeting this person that you have to tell everyone in your life where you’re going, then why are you meeting for this date? Your answer can’t be, ‘I liked his photo.’ That’s not enough for me.”
“If your date doesn’t have an online presence, and they reply to your messages in a way that feels confusing, don’t go on the date.”
Self-Awareness on the Date
Meeting someone can be totally nerve-inducing. No one is denying that – but staying alert and aware of your own feelings is key. A good place to start with this is to only agree to meet someone in a public place and in an area that you’re familiar with. If you drive, drive yourself, and plan to arrive early.
“On the actual date, I’ll often arrive 15 minutes early at the bar. I’ll order and pay for my drink before he arrives, so I can exit whenever I need to go,” Andrea says. “This also gives me a chance to tell the bartender that I’m meeting someone for a first date.”
This idea of alerting the bartender is something that has been catching on, particularly in this past year with the British ‘Ask for Angela’ campaign going viral. ‘Ask for Angela’ is a simple code-word initiative for people feeling unsafe on a date. It works by encouraging people to discreetly ask for help by going to the bar and ‘ask for Angela’ – a phrase that’ll let the bar staff know you need some help getting out of your situation.
“Most bartenders keep an extra eye out for you when they know a stranger from the internet is on his way there,” Andrea says. And on a final self-awareness note: “I never actually get drunk on a first date… If we’ve already had two strong drinks but I want to keep chatting, I’ll move over to water or seltzer.”
Dating Apps Doing It Better
The sad reality is that there isn’t a current technology that allows us to be absolutely safe. Fortunately though, there are some apps out there putting in the extra effort towards security – so you don’t have to hire a private investigator just to know who you’re going out with.
“I’m especially fond of the dating app Hinge because it reveals your match’s first and last name after you connect,” says Andrea. “I also like apps like Coffee Meets Bagel… because they make it difficult to join their apps without fully filling out important details like your job and where you went to college.”
Verifying someone’s identity is one issue, but what about concealing your own? Apps like The League are making it so that your private life and professional career don’t leak over unless you want it to.
“The League has a feature that I’d love to see catch on. They have the option to block your Facebook friends and LinkedIn connections from seeing you on the app,” Andrea explains. “For women who work in male-dominated industries, it can be a great peace of mind to know your male colleagues will never see your dating profile, or show it to each other after you’ve left the office.”
The Future of Dating Safely Online
Technology is continuously evolving – and that little tinge of panic you feel when thinking about the advancement of AI, data science and personalization is completely normal. But there could be immense benefits to these emerging forms of tech.
Andrea mentioned that she can imagine the “apps becoming better at requiring real details to help verify your identity, and becoming better at weeding out the bots” – but the possibilities expand even beyond that. Biometric features can be built and embedded, increasing higher accuracy and security. Or perhaps mixed reality platforms will develop where you’ll be able to converse with someone, or even go on a date without leaving your home.
Whatever the future has in store, it’s hopeful that as awareness for online safety increases and platforms improve further, online dating will undoubtedly become a safer experience.
Published in the Winter 2018 Issue. Get a digital or print copy here.