Online dating – should you be worried?
By Rachel Rosen
If you’re anything like me, there was probably a time when you thought that online dating services weren’t likely to be an issue for children and their families. Surely all dating sites and apps, designed to help people find romantic and sexual matches, would have a strict 18+ age limit, right?
Maybe not. For one thing, it’s not hard to lie about your age on most free dating sites. Some allow or encourage users to sign up with Facebook, which would theoretically verify your age, but often this is optional and all you have to do is enter a birthday. Some older online daters have been known to trim a year or two off their ages, so it’s probably safe to assume that determined under-18s could also figure out how to plug in a fake birthdate.
Some dating services also allow younger users. Tinder, for example, is officially 13+ and has made headlines by admitting that around 7% of its users are between 13 and 17.
Under-18s on Tinder are only matched with other users in the 13-17 age bracket. You have to sign up with Facebook to create a Tinder account, so theoretically there’s an age verification system in use. But anyone can lie about their age when creating a Facebook profile, giving them access to Tinder’s 7% underage users. And even if no one’s being dishonest, many parents might not be happy for their 13-year-old to be matched with a 17-year-old – or for their child to be on a dating app at all.
Image: Manuel Gonzalez Noriega CCBY 2.0
What’s the allure?
Young people have always been curious about sex and relationships, and because so much socialising happens on the internet, online romance might seem like the logical next step. Apparently 1 in 5 relationships now begins online, so if teens are interested, maybe it’s because they’re following our example.
For all their interest in sex and relationships, teens can be quite shy about actually speaking to the people they fancy. Some young people might feel more comfortable talking to potential partners via an app or website, where at least rejection won’t be delivered face to face (and possibly in the halls at school).
Meeting someone on the internet can be risky, though, a fact that dating sites like OkCupid admit – and try to guard against – in their safety tips. And that’s assuming everyone involved is an adult. However awkward it may be, it’s much safer for young people to explore relationships with people they know offline.
Do adults use these apps to target children?
Most adults dating online are looking to meet other adults and won’t be too happy if someone underage turns up in their matches. They’ll probably report or at the very least ignore underage profiles.
But anything that helps you connect with people can be abused. Some adults may use online dating specifically to target children, and because these services are focused on sex and relationships, young people who use them could be more vulnerable to this kind of exploitation.
Image: Jocelyn Saurini CCBY 2.0
What about STIs?
Obviously, an app won’t give you an STI by itself. Anyone who’s sexually active or considering having sex should know what they need to do to protect their health, like getting tested regularly, knowing their partner’s STI status and using protection. It’s a good idea to talk to your children about sexual health before it becomes an issue, so they’ll be able to stay safe when the time comes.
What should parents do?
It may be worth raising the topic of online dating with your child. If you’re not sure where to begin, you might start by saying you’ve read something about it and asking what they think. Be prepared to listen, but make sure to explain the risks of meeting people you don’t know and to emphasise that these services are meant for adults. Sexual communication with a child is a criminal offence, so let them know that adults who want to talk about sex are breaking the law and shouldn’t be trusted.
You could also remind your child of ways to connect with people their own age offline. Even if it’s scary to reach out in person, the risk of a quick rejection is much less serious than meeting someone malicious or dishonest. There will be plenty of time for wading through possibly embellished online dating profiles when they’re over 18!
Note: As of June 2016, Tinder has changed its age limit to 18+. Some other dating apps still allow or are aimed at younger teen users.