Practicing Safety in Online Relationships
December 20, 2023
The internet connects billions of people around the world, providing information and opportunities to bond with others around shared interests. Just as in your school, place of worship, or with any community group, the internet connects many different kinds of people. For example, there are online communities of teens and adults on the autism spectrum and also communities of people with other conditions that you may identify with, such as attention issues, sensory sensitivities, or anxiety. There are also online communities for different types of video games and online gaming platforms. Or, you could meet someone through an online dating app. The internet can be a rewarding way to develop meaningful relationships, but it’s important to keep safety in mind when interacting with others on the internet.
Unfortunately, not everyone who goes online is nice or has good intentions. For example, some people go online to troll, cyberbully, dox, or harm others. These people are often unavoidable, so it’s likely that you will come across some of them if you haven’t already. According to PrivacyRights.org, 70% of internet users between the ages of 18-24 have experienced some form of online harassment.
In order to protect yourself from untrustworthy people, it’s important to consider the personal information you share online. You may have heard that you shouldn’t share your full name, address, school, social security number, or other personal information online. That’s because people can use this information to steal your identity or do things like open credit cards in your name, for which you would then have to pay the charges!
Another reason not to share your personal information online is that some people are very good at using the internet to find out more about you. For example, if you share your first name and the school you attend or where you work, someone may be able to figure out your email address. This person could then harass or cyberstalk you by sending you emails, calling or coming to you at school or work, or simply threatening to do these things.
People online can be very nice and genuinely interested in bonding with others. Many develop friendships or romantic relationships online. At first, it’s common practice to use aliases or screennames that don’t contain personally identifying information. However, not everyone online is who they say they are. Some people will pretend to be someone else to earn your trust and scam you for money or personal information. Be cautious of who you trust online.
Once you meet someone online that you want to share your real name or other information with, consider talking to a parent or other trusted person first. You can discuss why you feel you can trust this person, and together with your parent or friend decide whether it is safe to reveal your name or other information. Some people choose to video call people they meet online (for example, to make sure their age and gender match what they have said). If someone tries to get you to tell them personal information before you are ready to trust them (such as your home or work address, or full name), they’re not being a good friend.
When developing a romantic relationship with someone you meet online, it’s important to confirm their age and never become sexually involved with someone who is under the age of sexual consent. If you learn that someone is under the age of sexual consent in your state (that is often based on your age and how many years younger the other person is than you), stop talking to them. If you continue to progress the relationship with that person sexually, you will face legal consequences.
As you meet new people on the internet, some of them may ask you to do things that make you feel uncomfortable. For example, some people enjoy talking explicitly about sex, while others don’t. You never have to talk about sex with someone if you don’t want to or if it makes you uncomfortable. Similarly, you never have to feel pressured to send someone a picture, a text message, or do anything else (such as a video chat) that makes you uncomfortable. If someone tries to get you to do something that you don’t want to after you told them “no,” that’s a red flag that they can’t be trusted to honor your wishes or respect you in the future.
Also remember to treat others the way you would like to be treated. If you want to talk about sex with someone, ask them first. If they say “no,” respect their wishes. Remember, some people may have had negative or traumatic experiences around sexuality in the past, and it may be painful for them to talk about sex. Other people just don’t like talking about sex, and that’s perfectly okay!
Following these tips will help you stay safe when developing different types of online relationships. For more information on this topic or to learn more about building healthy relationships, check out our Sex Ed for Self-Advocates online resource!
This post was adapted from Sex Ed for Self-Advocates. Click here to check out this online resource.