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There is a statistic that says 4.8 billion people own a cell phone, but only 4.2 billion own a toothbrush. While the validity of this statement may be suspect, that we’re even willing to entertain it is an indication of how profoundly intertwined we are with technology.

We use the Internet for almost everything: to manage finances, check the weather, search for recipes and new workouts, shop, launch careers, and build and maintain relationships. Whether it’s through texting, posting on Facebook, or tweeting, it seems that we’re now doing most of our talking on the Web.

Meeting Everywhere

A recent Student Health 101 survey found that 75 percent of respondents use Facebook, and nearly 30 percent use Twitter, at least once per day. Plus, many use a multitude of online forums and chat rooms to talk with friends and make new ones easily. Your peers connect with new and existing friends through Meetup, Google+, dating Web sites, and even online gaming.

According to the data:

  • More than 10 percent of students use Twitter to meet new friends and find romance.
  • About 11 percent use Meetup for this same purpose.
  • Nearly 5 percent say they would try a dating site to find a romantic partner.
  • Another 5 percent say they have already pursued new romantic connections on Facebook or Google+.

There really is everything under the sun when it comes to online relationships, too. Whether it’s connecting with people who share your interests in a Facebook group, or finding that special someone on one of the many special-interest dating sites—anything from EquestrianCupid.com for horse enthusiasts to The Atlasphere, a forum for Ayn Rand fans—there’s a spot for you online.

Why Go Virtual?

There are many great reasons to have a robust virtual presence. Connecting online can increase your social and professional networks, expose you to new people and ideas, and help you develop your social skills. The Web also makes the world a much smaller place, creating many cross-cultural communication opportunities.

Jessica F., a senior at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma, says, “Communicating online gives me different perspectives and helps challenge my opinions. Usually I surround myself [in person] with people who are very similar in thought.”

The Internet provides a wide world of possibilities. (It is called the World Wide Web, after all.)

While the Web is a great place to expand your thinking, it’s also a great place to meet people who share your interests. This may be because it feels like there’s less pressure, and especially if you’re shy or having a hard time meeting people, that may be a breath of fresh air.

“Social sites can encourage people to contact each other, particularly those who would be least likely to do so in the offline world,” says Dr. Mikolaj Piskorski, a professor at Harvard Business School in Boston, Massachusetts, who studies online dating. Meeting potential dates online has shed the stigma it once had, and has become a viable, engaging way to meet new and interesting people, especially outside of your usual social circle.

Dr. Piskorski explains, “We have [a lot] of control in online environments.” Brielle M., a junior at University of Maryland-College Park, describes a dating Web site designed specifically for students. She explains, “It was created by students for students and alumni to meet. It’s great since the audience is specific and you need a college email to join. Also, you can tailor your preferences by major and a bunch of other neat stuff.”

Virtual Concerns

Given all the positives, is there a downside to meeting people online?

“You [can’t always] get to know the ‘real’ person you are talking to or tell whether a person is being honest with you,” says Zoe A., a junior at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas.

Kim M., a junior at Mount Aloysius University in Cresson, Pennsylvania, agrees. “I tend to be overly trusting and have to remind myself of that. We think we’ll be able to tell when someone doesn’t have good intentions,” she admits, but realizes that it’s important to keep personal information guarded until there’s a level of trust built up.

“The Internet is not always safe,” says Zoe. “At first, I keep all of my information secret, but once I get to know the person and I trust them, I’m comfortable sharing it,” she explains.

Even if you’ve built some trust online, keep your wits about you. TV shows and movies, like Catfish on MTV™, have raised awareness of an unfortunate reality: not everyone online is really who they appear to be.

Tips about connecting in person with people you've met online

So you’ve befriended someone online and would like to meet in person. Here are some tips for a smooth and safe experience:
  • If you suggest meeting in person and your friend is hesitant or declines, this may be a sign that he or she has misrepresented an aspect of him- or herself or situation.
  • Make plans to meet in a public place, during daylight. Meeting at someone’s home or in a secluded place could create safety risks.
  • Know who you’re looking for, and vice versa. Share descriptions of what you look like, and consider wearing something recognizable (e.g., a flower pin or a shirt of a particular color).
  • Let friends or family members know where you’re going and when. Give them as much information about your new friend as you have: full name, phone number, email address, and where online you met.
  • Be yourself and have fun. It can be awkward to meet someone for the first time, and you’re likely both nervous. Understand that it takes time to get to know someone, even if you’ve had plenty of virtual conversations.
  • Set a time limit for yourself. Make plans to connect with another friend in about two hours from when you’ll meet your new friend. This is helpful for two reasons:
    • It gives you an “out” if you’re not having a good time.
    • If you don’t show up for your next plans, people will know something’s wrong.
  • If the person doesn’t wind up looking/acting/ being the way you thought he or she would, know that you’re not alone in having this experience. The way we present ourselves online is sometimes skewed, even unintentionally. It’s not your fault if you don’t connect in person as well as you did through the Web.
  • Until you’ve spent more time with your new friend in the “real” world and have built some trust, don’t offer your address or other private information.
  • Try to meet some of the other people in your new friend’s life. This can help confirm that he or she is being honest about his or her intentions.

Your Image

What if you’re just not the sharing type, even in person, or you’re worried about someone snooping around your Twitter feed? Take a look at your privacy settings and set some, or all, to be viewable by friends only. “We need to be really careful what we are typing and sending electronically,” says Kim, and Zoe is concerned, too. “Your personal information can be accessed by unauthorized people,” she notes.

Even if you think your online image is under lock and key, remember to be prudent. You wouldn’t share all of your personal information with a stranger on the street, so why should it be any different online?

Protecting Personal Information Online

Here are some tips:
  • Use passwords that aren’t easily hacked.
  • Log out of public computers before walking away.
  • Make sure you understand the privacy settings on all services you use. Sometimes they are tricky, and are automatically set so that anyone can see your information.
Keep personal and professional profiles separate, lest any racy or unprofessional photos or conversations cost you a job or the respect of your academic advisors. Prospective professional contacts do search for applicants online to see what they’re sharing and how they present themselves.

Start to build your career network now, by creating profiles on Web sites like LinkedIn and your school’s career or alumni page.

Send Safely
Online conversations aren’t the only things that can wind up exposed. What you share on your cell phone can also come back to bite you.

Sexting (sending sexually explicit messages, videos, or photos between mobile phones) has risen with increasing smartphone use. If you wouldn’t want your parents to see that text or picture, think twice about pressing “send.”

Definitely triple-check the addresses in your “To” box, and resist the urge to forward messages you receive from other people. While they may have been happy to share something with you, it’s likely they didn’t intend it to spread like wildfire.

Remember, once it’s out there, you can’t get it back.

These concerns apply to the way you communicate via cell phone, too. Be careful about texts you send your best friend or pictures that are meant for your romantic partner. “Our words, our pictures—they’re somewhere forever,” says Kim.

In the age of information, access to new ideas and connections is easier than ever, and using social media and virtual technology is increasingly essential. To use them to your best advantage, be careful about what you share and with whom. Behind our virtual images are real, 3-D people with lots of good, and some nefarious, intentions.

For more information about how your online life can affect your future, look out for this topic in the May 2013 issue of Student Health 101.

Take Action!

  • Use sites like Meetup and special-interest options to connect with people who are like-minded.
  • Expand your thinking and social circle by talking with many different people.
  • Be aware of privacy settings. Don’t use social sites to store personal or financial information.
  • Be mindful of texts and pictures you post or send. Consider your safety if meeting someone in person that you only know online.
  • Take breaks from the online world and talk to your friends and family in real life!

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