More and more adults are using the Internet to find love and community, and it should be no surprise that teens are also looking for romance, attention and love online.  While online dating poses a variety of risks for adults, it can also have a clear upside—streamlining the dating process in our over busy and ever-connected world.  For teenagers, however, online dating sites can pose a unique set of risks, and I would strongly recommend blocking your child from accessing dating sites.

For one, the vast majority of legitimate dating sites require their users to be at least 18 years of age, so if your son or daughter is using a site like eHarmony or Match, and if they are under 18 years old, then they have lied about their age in their online profile.  This also means that, if they are using the site, then they are likely meeting up with adults who may or may not know their real age.

Second, almost everyone tries to put their best foot forward on dates, but online, people can easily lie about their shoe size.  Your son or daughter needs to understand that you expect them to act with integrity online—that they should never lie about their age and stage in life, and they should be aware that the people they are communicating with online could be lying about their identity in a number of ways, which could place them at great risk.  I’ve worked with law enforcement agents who have found networks of older, adult men, who have specifically targeted young teens that they’ve met through dating sites.  Those men are often married and living a number of hidden lives.  Like any online predator, they twist the truth and promise all of the things that a young girl most crazes in her teen and tween years—love, excitement, adventure, money, etc.  You and your son or daughter need to recognize that they should never, ever agree to meet up with someone in person that they’ve only communicated with online.  If they every do agree to meet with someone, it should only be with your approval and with your accompaniment, and the meeting area should be very public.

Third, the dating sites that do market to teens, from my experience, tend to be much more shady and can be a hotbed for sexually explicit pictures and hook-up style encounters.  Our teens are growing up in an incredibly sexualized world, and the pictures that they even place on their social networking sites can be very racy.  The images and content that tend to be on dating sites (and especially teen sites) take this to another level.  It’s up to you as a parent to help your kids understand what is and what isn’t appropriate behavior online, and do your part to help protect them from explicit content online.  Things move much more quickly online than they do in person—conversation tends to me more explicit, images and videos are exchanged with incredible speed—your son or daughter can become very physically invested with and exposed to the people that they connect with online.  On one level, their emotions feel very real as they flirt online, but the physical activity seems a little less significant, but what they do through the Internet sets the stage for what they do offline.

Fourth, are the teenage years really the best years to find true love?  In my opinion, kids are better off if they wait to date until later, and if they remain connected to and invested in the lives of the people they interact with every day at school and through their extracurricular activities.  I’ve watched as these online relationships have taken friends all across the country on the search for love.  High school is not the time for that; it’s a time to learn, develop and be present in the life they have right in front of them.  Help your son or daughter learn that their security and value does not come from the person that they date; support their interests and invest in their lives so they don’t go looking for love—both online and offline—in the wrong places.

All of this to say, if you discover your son or daughter using a dating site, recognize that flirting and finding love is a natural desire that we’ve all had.  Kids and adults are going online to find that affirmation and to build relationships, but even though this is the world we live in, online dating has too many risks to be advised for your kids.  Have an honest conversation, listen to where your child is coming from and why their signed up, but shut it down to the best of your ability.  Use parental controls to block access, and back up your actions with reason and continual discussion.