by Larry Magid
One of the hottest new trends is social discovery — websites and smartphone apps that help people meet new people. Although there can be some overlap, these services differ from both dating sites like Match.com and traditional social networking sites like Facebook. Unlike dating sites, they don’t necessarily focus on romantic involvement and they differ from social networks that are primarily designed to help people stay in touch with existing friends.
Two popular sites (which also offer smartphone apps) are MeetMe and Tagged. Popular smartphone apps in this category include Highlight, Badoo, Skout and Banjo. Twitter is not primarily a social discovery tool, but — by default — everything you post is public and it can lead to private conversations and offline relationships.
There are as many reasons to use a social discovery site as there are people but they include meeting people with like interests such as sports, politics or exercise and — yes — some sites allow and a few even encourage flirting. There’s nothing wrong with any of these reasons to meet new people. What’s important is that the services be used appropriately.
Some of these services are open to teens as well as adults, though all require members to be at least 13-years old. It’s natural for parents to be concerned if you think your teen is using a service that could put them in touch with strangers, but before you react, find out not only if your teen is using such a service, but how they are using it. Just as with all good things in life, there are, of course, risky ways to use social discovery services. But there are also ways to use these services more safely. Nothing in life (including going to school or hanging out at home) is 100% safe, but by following some simple guidelines and using common sense, you can greatly minimize the chances of anything unpleasant.
The most obvious advice is to be very careful before getting together with someone you meet online. If you do, it should be in a public place and be sure to tell someone — preferably the teen’s parents where you’re going and who you’re meeting with. It’s a good idea to bring along friends or a parent for the first meeting. Don’t even think about a meeting until you feel at least somewhat comfortable with the person after perhaps chatting by phone and/or video. But even if you think they’re great, don’t take any chances. Always arrange the first meeting in a public place and don’t get into a car with the person or go to a private place until after you’ve met at least a couple of times in public.
Limit location information
Some social discovery apps use your phone’s GPS and other location technologies to display where you are. While it may be OK to display your general area (like your city), it’s not OK to display your specific location, except to people you already trust. Find out how specific the location feature is and if it’s too specific, turn it off. Even the name of your “city,” can be problematic if you’re in a small town.
Share with care
Also be careful when it comes to contact information. Don’t include your cell phone or land-line (if you have one) and if you’re going to share an email address, make it a throw-way one, like an extra Gmail, Yahoo or Hotmail account that’s separate from your main email.
It’s also generally not a good idea to share your full name on a social discovery site. Facebook requires you to use a real name but Facebook is not designed to meet strangers. It’s mostly for people you already know. Also be careful with how much you share about your family situation and other people. First of all, you should respect other people’s privacy, including your friends and family. Second, giving out too much information could be misused in some cases. Stay friendly, talk about common interests but be at least somewhat discrete when it comes to your family and friends.
Be honest about your age
These sites generally ask for your date of birth and it’s best to truthful. For one thing, it keeps kids under 13 off the site, which is important because these services clearly are not aimed at preteens. It can also help the site provide special protections for teens, as some do and it can help assure that you engage in age-appropriate discussions with people about your own age. And, if you’re caught lying (and that does happen) you could be kicked off the site.
User name and passwords
Pick a neutral nickname. Don’t use a provocative or “sexy” nickname. It sends out the wrong message and encourages harassment. Never give out your password. This applies to all types of sites and services. Here are some more password tips from ConnectSafely.org.
Beware of tell-tale signs
Most people who use social discovery services just want to meet new people and have only good intentions but there are always going to be some people who try to exploit or even harm others. Be careful about people who come on too strong or who immediately become your best friend or confidant. Flags to worry about include offers of gifts, excessive flattery or asking you things like “are your parents around.” Be wary of anyone who tries to exploit any disagreements or issues you have with your parents or significant others. But even if you don’t observe any of these signs, you still need to follow the rest of our advice.
Bullying, Sexting and reputation management, oh my
Statistically, the biggest “dangers” associated with all forms of social networking (social discovery included) have nothing to do with physical safety. While we don’t want to exaggerate these issues either, it’s important to be aware that teens can sometimes suffer psychological pain or wind up posting something that they later regret. ConnectSafely.org, SafeKids.com and other Internet safety sites have plenty of advice on these and other issues that affect today’s online teens.
Most services have a way of reporting anything that makes you feel uncomfortable. Don’t hesitate to use the service’s report abuse tools and make sure they respond. If they don’t follow up in a reasonable amount of time, stop using the service, but don’t necessarily assume that all concerns will be addressed. Services each have their own guidelines and sometimes things that bother people aren’t necessarily covered by their guidelines or terms of service.
Parent/teen conversations promote safety more than any “tool”
The best parental safety tool is having calm conversations with your teen while keeping an open mind. Of course you have advice for them, but before you tell them what you think they need to know, find out what they do know. It may surprise you to learn that they’re already thinking about safety or you might discover some gaps that need reinforcing. But keep calm and try not to overreact.
For more advice on social discovery and online safety, visit: