With over 220 million internet users in the United States, millions of people are looking online for Mr. Right or Ms. Right Now. It doesn't matter if you are looking for love or casual sex, the internet is like a fast food restaurant and it is easy to find someone to satiate your appetite.  Whether it is good for you ultimately depends on what you are hungry for.   The internet is the go-to place for a "pre-date".  Pre-dating involves meeting, ogling, researching, exploring, fantasizing, analyzing and chatting with others in the hopes of establishing a connection offline.  While it is easy to  pre-date,  making a successful transition offline can be challenging.

In order to minimize the hazards of online dating and maximize the rewards,  it is important to follow three simple rules when you log on and hope others do too!

1. BE HONEST

Honesty really is the best policy.  Recently a twenty- something client told me about a coffee date he had arranged offline with a thirty-two year old man he had met online.   They agreed to meet at Starbucks and after waiting a bit, a significantly older man approached him and introduced himself as his date. While the man looked familiar to the picture he had exchanged with my client, but at fifty, the man was attempting a bait and switch while sipping a  latte'.  When confronted on the deception, the man was unapologetic. "I feel like I am thirty two and my picture is representative of me and how I feel. He proceeded to chastise my client for being superficial and ageist by limiting his options to someone his own age!"

Profiles exist in order to communicate who you are and to be clear with your expectations and desires.  So be honest and save yourself and your potential date a lot of trouble and wasted time. While people may fantasize and play with truths online, offline, people will be meeting the real you, not the fantasy version of yourself.  If you are a fifty year-old man who feels like you are thirty two--then share that sentiment on your profile, but keep that dated picture OUT of the picture.

No one likes rejection but you set yourself up for it when you lie or stretch the truth.   So put up your profile with pride and be honest about who you are and what you have.   If people are interested, they will reach out, if they aren't (and many won't be) they will just pass over your profile and you will be none the wiser.   Being honest won't guarantee you that you won't be rejected, but the odds are in your favor.  Now if the shoe is on the other foot, and you get suckered and find yourself out on a date with  someone who is a figment of their own imagination, make sure you let them pick up the tab.

2. KNOW WHAT YOU WANT

The 70's introduced our country to a sexual revolution; the internet introduced the world to the 70's on steroids. You can engage just about anyone, anywhere, anytime. Some people really get lost with all those options and it is important that you are clear as to what you want when you log on. Ask yourself---are you online looking for a relationship or no strings attached sex?  Whatever the case, it is important that you realize it is easy to meet people online but you have to be patient enough  to stay the course to find what you are looking for.  I see countless clients who proclaim they are lonely and desperate for a relationship.  They seem perplexed that the person they met cruising the web at 3am, after a long night of drinking, didn't fit the bill. I often point out that while they say they really want a relationship,  they are working hard to ensure they get a "one night stand". It seems in the moment, something is better than nothing. Unfortunately, if you lose sight of what you really want, these compromised moments add up and your self-esteem takes a hit.

You need to know your audience to get what you want. Certain websites are geared for casual hook ups and others cater to a more relationship-oriented crowd. If a relationship is what you really want, then logging into the former may be doing you more harm than good, and it is time to exercise some self-restraint. Loneliness and arousal make poor bedfellows in the end.

3. BE REALISTIC

Once you know what you want, when you find it, proceed thoughtfully.  People who are online looking for sex want to get offline and between the sheets without delay.   As tempting as that may be, when possible, try and meet first in a public place before moving things to the bedroom.  Often, these hook ups occur when people are compromised by alcohol or drugs and their decision-making abilities regarding safe sex and personal safety are impaired.  It is really important to follow your gut instincts and if something doesn't feel right, it probably isn't. Finally, repeatedly turning to the internet for sex may be a sign you are struggling with a sexual addiction and may need some professional help.  The Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health offers a cyber addiction checklist for consideration.  (http://www.ncsac.org/general/addict_self_test_cyber.aspx). 

 For the relationship minded, it is likely you spend your time online perusing online profiles and "winking" or "poking" people to get their attention. If they respond, so begins the dance of the emails and a lot of pre-dating.  Not too long ago, it was butterflies we were feeling, or not feeling, on a first date that spoke volumes to us and we really didn't need to know too much about a person before accepting an invitation to dinner.  With online dating, it seems the converse is more the norm---people much prefer to really, really, really  get to know the person before committing to an actual date. Today, you better not think even think of asking for someone's phone number until your psychological and compatibility profile have been thoroughly vetted.

Being  cautious and overly informed about someone can really take the magic out of a first date. Chemistry with another person requires input from all of our senses.  So once your interest has been piqued don't wait too long to set up a meeting offline and let the butterflies do their work. Sadly, too many people fall for the perfect match on screen, begin a passionate online affair of the heart, decide upon the names of their future children and then meet only to break up. Bottom line,  pre-dating is not dating and it is hard to share a bottle of wine and watch the sunset with someone when you are tethered to your keyboard.

Throughout history, sex, dating, and romance have all had unique challenges with rituals that are constantly evolving. Perhaps now, more than ever, with the accessibility of the internet and the freedom to explore just about anything, people are doing just that. With a little attention (giving and receiving) to being honest, knowing what you want, and being realistic, your Digital Self can really shine online. 

About the Authors

Brett P. Kennedy Psy.D.

Brett P. Kennedy, Psy.D., has a private practice in New York where he provides psychotherapy to adults and couples.

Tamara J Hicks Psy.D.

Tamara J. Hicks, Psy.D., is co-founder of Potrero Hill Psychotherapy in San Francisco and provides psychotherapy to adults, children, couples, and families.

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