(LifeWire) -- With social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace now in the digital dating mix, there are plenty of new chances to meet the right -- and wrong -- people online.
Grayson Currin, 24, of Durham, North Carolina, who describes himself as a "big, burly guy," posted his band's photograph on his MySpace account and started getting messages from a girl in Canada who had a thing for large, hairy guys. "It felt a little unnatural to me," says Currin. "I don't send messages to random girls. I think that's creepy."
Jennifer Kelton, a Los Angeles-based writer and creator of the social networking and dating site BadOnlineDates.com maintains that social networking sites offer an attractive alternative to more established online dating sites like Match.com or eHarmony.
"People are fed up with the online dating world," says Kelton. "They realize that there is a lot of misrepresentation out there. On a social networking site you are interfacing with people on a different level. Facebook and MySpace create more of a safe and loving environment," she contends.
Between MySpace and Facebook, there are thousands of dating and relationship groups that give people a chance to commiserate, learn the ins and outs of dating or scratch a particular itch -- like in Facebook's group, "Have You Loved An Engineer Today?"
There can also be a certain seal of approval that comes with approaching someone in your friend's social network -- almost like a blind date arranged by your buddy -- assuming your friend is discerning about linking to others online and game to let you try. That's not to say, though, that issues of online security aren't just as pressing on a social network as on more established dating sites -- especially for kids and teenagers.
On October 16, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo announced an agreement with Facebook to enhance safety practices on its site, particularly for teenagers and younger children. MySpace followed Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal's criticism of its protections against sexual predators by removing 29,000 convicted sex offenders from its database in July.
But is online dating on social networks or even more established dating sites any more dangerous than connecting with people in more traditional ways? At least one expert thinks maintaining perspective is important.
"I just think that (the media and society) can create a constant sense of paranoia to the point where it's paralyzing," says Evan Marc Katz, author of "I Can't Believe I'm Buying This Book: A Commonsense Guide to Successful Internet Dating."
According to a study from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 31 percent of American adults know someone who has tried dating online. The Pew study also revealed that 43 percent of people who have actually tried online dating consider it a risky pursuit.
In any event, it's wise to exercise common sense and take a few basic precautions when meeting through social-networking and online dating sites.
• Do you get what you pay for? Fee-based dating sites like Match.com and eHarmony tend to attract people genuinely looking to connect because they require members to fill out a detailed personal profile and pay a fee before getting full access to the site. Nevertheless, check these and other sites' privacy protection policies, as well as any safety tips they offer.
• Maintain privacy. Both MySpace and Facebook have privacy settings so you can control who views your profile and sends you comments. Some dating sites like Match.com also have similar features that allow users to block e-mails or hide their photos, for example.
• Never give out personal info on your profile. Never give out your street address, e-mail, or home or work telephone number until you feel completely safe doing so. Create a separate e-mail address specifically for meeting people online that doesn't reveal either your place of business or your real name.
• Go slowly before meeting in person. The natural progression of most online relationships is from e-mails to phone calls to in-person meet-ups -- but there's no need to rush it. "Definitely talk on the phone at least twice before meeting in person. People can be very different from their online personality," advises Amy Behrens, a 25-year-old consultant and graduate student from Boston, Massachusetts, who has been on more than a dozen dates stemming from online encounters.
• Map out the entire date. When meeting face-to-face for the first time, make sure to meet in a public place, and don't accept a ride from the other person. Let your friends know where you are. Plan a low-pressure activity with an easy "out," like a coffee date. "I never go on a first date that is longer than a drink or coffee," says Behrens. "You can always extend the date, but it's harder to shorten it." E-mail to a friend
LifeWire provides original and syndicated lifestyle content to Web publishers. Jocelyn Voo is a freelance journalist and relationships editor at the New York Post.
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