I have a lot of experience with this subject, because most of my socializing as an adult happened on the internet... I even met my life partner through the internet, lol!
- What information is okay to give out?
When I was a teenager and young adult, I used to chat with random people on a site called Omegle. (I did not use their video feature.)
The only information I ever gave out there was an anonymous email account associated a private messenger app (none of the ones I used to use exist anymore). That way, it was easy to block someone if they turned out to be creeps or whatever.
Since that time, I have met people through the mainstream social media websites and forums on special interests, too.
- When is it okay to give it out?
If I enjoyed the conversation and found the other person to be kind and friendly and we had some areas of interest in common, I would ask if he or she wanted to talk further later.
- What red flags do you look for?
On Omegle, people were typically upfront if they were interested in "inappropriate interactions," which I wasn't interested in myself.
Anyone who makes you feel uncomfortable, nervous, scared, or hurt is best to avoid.
- How long do you talk to someone before you consider them a friend?
If I talk to someone regularly for three months or so (either a few times per week, every week, or a few times per month), then I would consider them a friend.
At that point, we would often exchange email addresses.
Usually, people only spend time chatting online when they are in a life circumstance that accommodates it, but typically those circumstances change, and people move into the non-virtual world.
Being pen pals is a good way to keep connection with internet friends who live very far away and need to move away from chatting. It is typically quite a bit less frequent communication, but you can still talk about the important stuff that matters!
I also have met local friends through the internet! I chatted with them for over six months before I met them in person at a public event. They were lovely on the internet, and lovely in person, too! We all have a group chat where we stay connected and plan meetups.
- Any other tips/hard lessons learned?
Once, I knew a girl who created an entirely fake story about her life. She was an emotionally troubled person.
Surprisingly, she ended up confessing her deception to me, after one of her other internet friends was angry with her for lying to them and she wanted to process the loss of that friendship...
I felt a bit gullible after that, and she stopped talking to me shortly after...I hope she's doing okay, now.
Moral of the story: there are people who will misrepresent themselves, due to personal issues.
- And I guess the most important thing is why?
Being able to connect with other human beings in a positive way helps us all emotionally regulate better! My life coach explained to me that self-regulation is a good and important skill, but that co-regulation is how we develop that skill as a child and strengthen it as an adult and how we support one another as a social species. Even as an autistic person, I can experience this. Emotional validation is important!