The percentage of Americans over age 50 on social networking sites nearly doubled from 2009 to 2010, according to the Pew Research Center.

Some of those older adults are logging on to dating sites, but they might not be as savvy as they should be about how to protect their privacy, according to one researcher.

 

Carla VanderWeerd, assistant professor in the College of Public Health at the University of South Florida said online dating sites can be great way for older women to meet a potential mate. But there are risks.

VanderWeerd recently analyzed more than 150 MySpace profiles of women 55 and over looking for dating or relationships near Tampa. She found that about three-quarters used the default privacy settings on the site.

"What that means is that anybody can see the photos that they're showing, they can see the blogs, they know whether their families live close to them or far away, they know if they're discussing what their mental health issues might be," VanderWeerd said. "A lot of older women are describing these things publicly in their online profile."

Since VanderWeerd collected her data, MySpace has moved back to its roots as a music-sharing site. But results from the free dating site Plenty of Fish are showing similar disclosure trends, according to VanderWeerd. She said that is putting some of the women in her sample at serious risk.

"If you're a perpetrator and you're looking for someone who might be more vulnerable, it's very easy to target someone whose family perhaps lives far away, who might have some sort of disability that might make it more easy to victimize that person," VanderWeerd said.

Vanderweerd said she does not know if disclosure trends are different for younger adults on dating sites, but older women are often seen as more vulnerable in general, so more information being revealed may put them at greater risk.

Older online dater Nina Todor is careful about her privacy. The Ewing, New Jersey woman says she even changed her email address so potential dates can't see her last name. The worst experience she's had: a bad phone conversation.

"It was about politics," Todor said.

Before the election, a contact spoke strongly about his own political beliefs.

"And when he got finished, he said, and 'you haven't said anything, and I don't really want to hear what you have to say,' and he hung up," Todor said. "That was the worst, I really have been very lucky."

Todor is on a paid dating site, where only other members can see her profile, which makes her feel more secure.

VanderWeerd said her research isn't meant to scare older women away from online dating, just encourage them to be more careful about the information they reveal.

 

Carolyn Beeler produced this story through the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellows program, a collaboration of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.