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When asked to dwell on their initial online dating experiences, participants were apt to offer additional reflections on how their own online behaviors had changed over time. YGM spoke of feeling less afraid of meeting men in person and giving out personal information, while simultaneously being more selective about the nature of their virtual activities and personal connections.

Using their prior Internet encounters as a template for future expectations, participants characterized their current consumption of online dating services as more direct and opportunistic. YGM spoke of their ability, acquired through experience, to decide more quickly whether an online conversation or relationship was worth further pursuit. Sean 22, White, single admitted:. I guess just becoming more picky. Well, not picky, but like, sounds bad, but it's like if I know that me and this person are going to have nothing in common, then I won't waste my time talking to them on the site.

I guess I would say the big thing is I'm more opportunistic about it [online dating]. And a lot better at even like even messaging people first. Or, you know, ignoring people that I don't want to talk to. And, like, either setting things up or shutting things down really quickly, as opposed to just sort of messaging into infinity, and then nothing ever produces itself.

In response to their earlier experiences of isolation and uncertainty, which initially drove them to engage in online exploration, some participants articulated a sense of freedom in no longer relying on the Internet for personal validation and acceptance of their sexuality. Matthew 22, White, in a relationship justified this change, suggesting,. I think before I was using it just as a way to identify gay people. And now I live in Boston, and I don't — I know gay people.

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The same things aren't motivating me. So, I use the Internet to find, like, people with similar interests or, like, people to go out with and party.

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James 22, White, single underwent a similar transition regarding his use of online dating. Now that I'm in college and I'm out and I've accepted a lot of things about my sexuality and who I am, I don't feel like I need the Internet as much.

“A safe way to explore”: Reframing risk on the Internet amidst young gay men's search for identity

Because it was the only outlet I had for that. And now, you know, I can go to a bar.

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Or I usually just know somebody who knows somebody kind of thing. Another emerging theme regarding changes in online dating was an increased feeling of security at both the prospect of sharing personal information on the Internet and meeting men in person. Derek 21, White, single summed up his new attitude: And I think at that point, I feel like Internet dating hadn't really hit yet.

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So, a lot of people didn't have a lot of information up. Not many people had pictures up. And, like, being able to see what somebody looked like was more of a big deal…. Whereas now, you have a profile and you have your whole life, like on a freaking page…. But, you know, back then, like you had to have a picture of yourself and then you'd have trade. And, you know, sometimes it wouldn't work or they wouldn't — you'd send them a picture and then they wouldn't send you one back. And, you know. So, I think it was a lot sketchier. Peter 24, White, single described his reservations about meeting men face-to-face as shifting over time:.

I think I started to kind of be able to more immediately dissect how people present themselves online and, you know, I guess, like, when I was a kid, I was more afraid of, like, meeting someone who turned out to be, like, a very old pervert who'd like kill me and murder me or whatever, and I'm less afraid of that now… I guess my biggest fear went from being killed into being disappointed.

And I was never killed but I'm often disappointed. YGM's initial dating experiences online helped them come away more equipped to navigate the emotional risks that present themselves online. Emerson 19, White, single neatly summarized how his dating habits have changed:. I still use Internet dating, but I use it in a different context.

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I use it, I guess I look at it with a different view than I ever did before. And I use it in a way that's going to benefit me. That's going to let me feel good myself and not use it for the reasons that I did before. You know? Looking for a relationship. I may look for a casual hookup, but I know that I can handle. I know what I want and I'm not going to put myself in a situation where it's wanting that…If I feel like I'm doing this because I just want that love feeling, I just, I have to stop, and I stop myself because it's just, that's not contributing toward a healthy lifestyle, that's for sure.

YGM's initial online dating experiences can be characterized by a need for validation and personal connection, often accompanied by a desire to please or conform. Through time and experience, however, participants were empowered to draw their boundaries and exert more control over the nature of their personal encounters, be they romantic or sexual.

As Ethan 24, White, single declared:. It's like I'm not afraid of the fact that everybody's looking for sex online anymore. I think I feel a little bit more knowledgeable about it because I'm like, you know, I've seen so many profiles now and I've kind of been up and out and around, and I'm like, it doesn't affect me the way it used to. And I'm a lot more comfortable telling people that I'm not really looking for sex. Our participants' narratives bear witness to one of the conundrums of adolescence and emerging adulthood.

Lacking knowledge and experience, youth seeking validation of and information about perceived aspects of their identity may be less able to negotiate their sexual and emotional needs. One might argue that YGM experience this more so in that they may not receive the same level of support and guidance from others when first exploring sex and sexuality as a result of continued stigma surrounding same-sex desire.

Yet they gain access to important interpersonal scripts, as well as emotional benefits, by engaging in online exploration, which ultimately leaves them better equipped to navigate their social worlds with agency.

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  5. We interviewed young gay men about their initial online dating experiences, ranging from timid exploration to meeting potential partners face-to-face. YGM felt vulnerable to emotional risks and conflicted about the implications of engaging in sexual acts. With increased experience, however, participants resolved some of these uncertainties and perceived the Internet as a realm of opportunity when seeking romantic and sexual relationships. Consequently, researchers and practitioners must recognize that, while going online may encompass some amount of HIV risk for YGM, it also provides them with the opportunity to partake in important developmental processes.

    Additionally, participants emphasized their vulnerability to emotional risks of online dating— feelings of guilt, shame, longing, and fear — over any perceived risk of contracting HIV. The young men who participated in our study bear out the notion that the processes of identity formation were of particular importance in their lives, as they were often unable to explore these identities in typical adolescent social settings. Consequently, the online spaces that participants entered were akin to a newly discovered territory, distinct from anything they had previously experienced, in which they confronted the task of exploring new ways of being and doing Ross, Online access offered YGM an opportunity to explore their sexuality, unfettered by the stigma and constraints imposed by public self-identification.

    Turning to the online world as questions arose regarding their desires and attractions, YGM developed profiles for others to view, often portraying themselves in ways which they perceived as desirable e. Participants offered a variety of reasons for going online. Yet whether the reason given was the freedom encountered via the cloak of anonymity or the experience of control wrought by illuminating particular aspects of themselves and obscuring others, the implication is the same: In conceptualizing participants' online engagement, an entire spectrum of exploratory experiences came to the fore, in which YGM were actively learning about their own desires as well as online community norms.

    As they first entered this environment, many of our participants were grappling with the implications of assuming a non-heterosexual identity, a process that may be distinguished from that of recognizing and enacting same sex attraction Blum, ; Boxer et al. As we have emphasized previously, interpersonal scripts served as the mechanism by which YGM were engaging in these processes of identity formation. In finding a safe place to explore, participants took note of the speech, behavior, attitudes, and expressions of others online. They internalized their observations of these online spaces and reflected back slightly altered scripts, which incorporated these normative scripts and their own attitudes and values.

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    When implementing their scripts online, participants described their exploratory experiences as generally safe and affirming. As YGM contemplated the meaning of this environment, as well as that of beginning to engage sexually with other men, they expressed feelings of guilt, confusion, and anxiety. The scripts that had been so readily available when chatting online suddenly seemed out of reach or incompatible to an in-person encounter; however, participants reconciled these scripts and transitioned from a period of emotional vulnerability into feeling greater self-acceptance and enjoyment of sexual pleasure.

    Ultimately, the participants were confident in their use of interpersonal scripts to communicate their desires online and facilitate in-person meet-ups. Throughout YGM's narratives regarding their initial online dating experiences and how they compare to their present efforts, participants brought up various stories related to issues of risk, fear, and safety. Consistent with prior findings Bauermeister et al. Additionally, participants detailed the numerous emotional risks involved in the entire enterprise.

    Many had already experienced isolation and rejection in their daily lives and were therefore wary of encountering it online. Their first sexual encounters were fraught with missteps, embarrassments, and uncomfortable situations.

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    It is interesting to note that throughout these narratives on online dating, very little came up about HIV risk as a concern. This interpretation has important implications for both our understanding of YGM's HIV risk perceptions and prevention efforts focused on this population. Given the complex portrait of Internet risk, both in terms of the available research and our own findings, it is important that we establish a more nuanced vision of the role of the Internet in the lives of YGM. Enormous hurdles to equality remain in place, and stigma is a daily reality for many youth.