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The Daily Tar Heel

Looking for Love In All the Web Places

Online distractions abound, from talking to friends, to playing games, to finding that special someone.

"Snood was the bane of my existence last year," said Nathanson, a sophomore psychology major. "As soon as I got bored, stressed or distracted, playing Snood would zap all conscious thought, and I'd be OK for a little while."

Nathanson is one of many UNC students who use computers not only for word processing and research but also for games, AOL Instant Messenger, chat rooms and downloading.

Students say this is simply a part of college culture.

Melanie Davis, a sophomore history major, admits to spending hours absorbed in Internet conversations. "I love being able to catch up with people without raising my phone bill."

According to their Web sites, AOL Instant Messenger and ICQ, two popular online messaging programs, each have amassed more than 100 million users around the world.

In addition to using these services to talk to old friends, Davis said she also enjoys making new ones in Internet chat rooms. "I know people who have met their long-term boyfriends in chat rooms," Davis said. "For me, I'm still looking. It's just an exciting hobby."

But college students are not the only ones taking advantage of advancing computer technology.

Linda McKeen, a 32-year-old insurance agent in Raleigh, met her husband, Mark, in an Internet chat room two years ago. McKeen said that she is aware of dangers associated with meeting people via the Internet but that as long as people are cautious, good relationships can be formed.

"I was careful who I talked to and who I met, but overall I felt safe," she said. "By the time I saw Mark in person, I already knew so much about him."

Linda and Mark waited six months before meeting face to face. "It's amazing how much you can learn about someone by simply engaging in hours of conversation online," she said. "This form of interaction doesn't happen in typical singles' bars."

Although new technology allows for increased communication, safety and privacy issues are still important concerns. "I've read and heard about all of the safety guidelines for the Internet, but as long as you're smart, I believe that most people are safe," said Andrea Edwards, a junior economics major.

"If you don't give out too much personal information, I don't see a problem with it," Edwards said.

For safety, Edwards said she always brings along friends and meets her dates in public places. "The guys I meet are usually as nervous as I am," she said. "We're all just people searching for a relationship."

So far at UNC, officials at the Department of Public Safety say only a few cases of Internet-related harassment have been reported.

To prevent problems from occurring, Jeff McCracken, deputy director for DPS, suggests a few guidelines for online safety.

McCracken stressed the importance of not giving out your address, phone number, location or credit card information. He suggested using Caller ID block (*67) before connecting with Internet acquaintances over the phone.

"UNC students are smart people with good common sense, and that's basically what this is," McCracken said.

Despite safety concerns, Davis said she thinks college is a time to experiment and focus on activities there might not be time for in the future.

"Once we're out in the real world, being mesmerized by the 'weeeeeeee squirrel' and chatting with Internet friends for four hours a day is taboo," Davis said. "Why not enjoy this technology while we can?"

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