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Dangers of Online Communication

by James H. Russell

The Internet has undeniably changed the world in many ways, and communication has evolved so it is no longer tied to home or business phones or "snail mail." Today it's all about "now." But with the additional immediacy and the obvious boons given us by online communication -- including email, instant messaging, social media posting and video conferencing -- come some real dangers. People have hurt others, been taken to court and found guilty, and even committed suicide because of online communication. You absolutely have to be careful how and with whom you communicate on the Internet if you're going to stay safe.

Sexual Predators Online

Because communication over the Internet can be anonymous, sexual predators can and do use the Internet to access and groom vulnerable people for illicit sexual purposes. Sexual predators can claim to be a gender or age they aren't, developing and nurturing unrealistic relationships with victims and eventually convincing them to meet in person. Children and women are most frequently targeted, and children are especially vulnerable if their online communications aren't supervised by a responsible adult.

Financial Con Men

The world has a lot of lonely people in it, as well as those who are naive or trusting, and con men and scammers abound on the Internet looking for them. Elderly people and those not familiar with Internet dangers are especially vulnerable to being sought out and tricked into giving away money -- sometimes even their life savings -- by con artists who pretend to be a trustworthy person with a worthwhile cause in need of support or a someone in desperate need of money. The con men can claim anything -- for example, that they or a loved one are in dire need of surgery. When a victim does give money, the con men find more reasons to ask for money, continuing potentially until the victim wises up or goes broke and the perpetrator simply disappears, never to be heard from again.

Immediacy and Permanence

Internet communication is immediate and too often permanent. With very few exceptions, after an email is sent it's sent, you can't take it back. Replying to an email when emotions are high is often a bad move; it's typically best to cool down before replying. So-called "drunk texting," or communicating online when under the influence of alcohol, can mean that the sender communicates things that they regret once they are sober. The potential for such missteps are compounded when a public forum such as a Facebook or Twitter account is used, where multiple people or potentially anyone can view the indiscretion. Further, private data can be compromised and used against you. Many companies have lost court cases due to email records supporting cases against them, and individuals have been humiliated and even have committed suicide after their online communications were used against them. Some people temper their online posts and messages by not doing anything they wouldn't want their parent to see.

Dubious Tone and Lack of Inflection

Text-based communication such as email, instant messaging and cell phone texts are particularly vulnerable to the fact that text is missing any sort of tone or inflection, making it difficult to judge when someone may be kidding or is serious. A phrase as simple as "You're an idiot!" could be said with a sardonic grin in person to make it evident the person is just teasing, but in an email that grin is not necessarily evident, even if you use an appropriate emoticon to convey a wink or a smile. Overall, it's important to watch how you say things via text because the person receiving it is only reading emotionless text characters, not your facial expressions or the tone of your voice. Similarly, don't be too quick to jump to a conclusion about what someone else wrote without verifying what was meant.

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