You've no doubt heard of computer dating services. They've been around for years. But did you know there are new online dating services for your teenager? Teens around the country are logging on and hooking up. Is this harmless, or are kids flirting with disaster.
For teens, date night used to mean going skating, to the arcade, or maybe to the movies and meeting new people there. But today teens like Casey Gomez are turning to online dating services sites like Bolt.com and e-Crush. It's there he met Nicole. "She's awesome, a great friend." A great friend who's not even in the same state. But between the email and the phone calls, a relationship flourished before Casey's parents even knew he'd been on the site.
They weren't happy at first. "The stalkers out there,and the pedophiles that go after these kids, and my son online is handing out our phone number," says Lisa Gomez, Casey's mother. But the more Lisa got to know about Nicole and Casey's relationship, the more she liked their web romance. "I feel okay with it. To me, it's just like having a pen pal."
Four years ago, Karen DeMars wanted to start a site to help teens meet each other online and then in person if they click. The result was e-Crush.com. "In those four years, have just seen the numbers and interest level in dating and online dating among teens really just skyrocket." Today, there are nearly three million users, mostly teens. Most dating services let you describe the person you'd like to meet. At e-Crush, you can play Spin the Bottle and meet someone randomly.
Some safety experts like Larry Magid have a problem with that. "It could be a wonderful way to meet people, but unfortunately, people aren't always who they say they are."Magid is a child safety consultant with Safekids.com. He worries these sites could be a predator magnet. "A 40 year old man who claims to be a 16 year old girl. You don't want to run into that person because he might do you some real harm."
How much information could a predator really find on-line? I decided to put the security to the test. At Bolt.com, everyone logs in with an information profile that includes their birthday. With that information and about five minutes of surfing, I found a 17 year old girl's real name, home address, and driver's license number and the driver's license number of anyone else living in the same house. I also found an actual photo of her. All of it is available to anyone with the inclination to search the web.
Karen DeMars insists her site is safe. "Any user under the age of 18 is in a completely separate pool from users over 18. And the two cannot intermix." But she admits, unlike the teen scene in the real world, there's no way to really know who you're talking to online or how old they are.
And that's what bothers moms like Karen Del Sordo the most. After looking over some sites, Karen said no way. "How do we know how old the guy is that she's actually talking to or what she's doing? You don't."
But Casey Gomez is a believer. He plans to meet Nicole for the first time this summer. And mom and dad now say teenage computer dating may no be so bad after all.
If your kids are going to give online dating a try, here's some safety advice from Larry Magid of Safekids.com. First, your child should know never to hand out personal information, like a phone number. Don't use a real name as a login ID. If they do want to meet someone from a dating service, it should be in a public place with parents present. And, if your child is approached by a creep online, don't punish the child. They're the victim. You want to encourage them to tell you what they do online, not hide it.