We are taught, starting at a very early age, the dangers of the internet. The biggest rule: don’t talk to people you don’t know. “You have no idea who could be on the other side of the screen. There is no way to know whether or not the person who you are talking to really is who they say they are."
I have had more online friendships than I can even begin to count. However, it makes me unsettled to know that many view these friendships as “illegitimate” due to their beginnings. But what’s so wrong about wanting to find people like me? People who are struggling or have struggled in ways in which I can relate. What is the problem in reaching out to like-minded individuals for guidance and friendship if I am lacking in those areas in my “real life”.
I don’t mean to diminish the legitimacy of online friendships and relationships by referring to an “online life” as the contrary to “real life” because I know for a fact that online relationships have the potential to be just as legitimate as any other. However, I will continue to refer to it as such for a lack of a better term. What I am trying to convey in this article is the safe means in which any person can go about making online friends in a healthy and secure way.
In order to ascertain the identity of a new potential online companion, I have found that an exchange of situation specific photos is helpful. For example, have your friend send you a picture of them (face included) holding a post-it note with the date and time on it. You do the same. Red flag: someone refusing to send such a picture. If they respond with "it's too dark," ask again the next day. Continue to ask until you have either received such a picture or lose hope in ever receiving such a picture from them (I recommend asking a maximum of four times.) If they accuse you of calling them a liar, assure them that this is for your safety and theirs.
Another strategy is checking out their other social media accounts. Ask if they have Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Tumblr or Twitter accounts which you could friend request and follow, respectively. This tactic also allows you to confirm identity. If they do have social media accounts, check them out. Check out profile pictures and usernames. Red flag: if they say they don't have any social media accounts. While yes, there are many people who don't have any social media, I would still be skeptical. Also, if the username and/or picture is not consistent with other information that you've been given, ask for an explanation or the story behind it.
Make sure you ask how they found you and make sure the answer is both plausible and not alarming. Whether you were messaged on Facebook, WhatsApp, Kik Messenger, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, email, a dating site/app, etc. ensure that your information was discovered in a safe and harmless manner. Red flag: if their response is avoidant, defensive or creepy i.e "My friend hooked up with you last summer and said I should give you a go." That example is a definite no-no. Do not stay in touch.
Utilize FaceTime, Skype or Oovoo when communicating. Video-chat is a great way to get to know someone as well as a surefire way to get a more accurate visual of the person who you are talking to.
If you ever plan to meet face to face, make sure you meet in a crowded area i.e. the mall. In this situation, don't leave the premise with that person unless you stay entirely in a widely populated area. This rule of thumb is essential for the first few times you meet in person. It is important to be face to face in order to gauge the nature of the friendship and the extent of your safety. Red flag: if they ask if you want to leave (go back to their place, go somewhere more private, go to their car, etc.) say no! If they ask again or badger you about your decision, be sterner with your response.
Most importantly, take things slowly and don’t be too paranoid. Online friendships are unlike any other type of friendship you will ever encounter. Enjoy them and don’t worry too much. The reality of the matter is online friendships aren’t dangerous, you just have to be careful.