jf/cultura/Corbis

Love online isn't as easy as it may seem.jf/cultura/Corbis

It's Valentine's Day, the happiest or saddest day of the year, depending on your relationship situation. For loners looking for romance, the virtual world has become a seductive option. The Internet offers avatar girlfriends, virtual sex, curvaceous robots and virtual worlds populated with the possibilities of digital soul mates.

But digital dating is not all fun and games. People tend to take risks they may not take in the real world and those risks carry consequences that can affect your behavior in the real world. So, before you fall head over heels for a digital babe, here is some advice to consider.

Distinguish Real from Virtual

It may seem obvious to many people that a virtual world isn't reality. But it's easy to get lost in the fantasy. Research has shown that the intensity of virtual experiences can even alter the way people behave in the real world.

"People relate to their avatars as extensions of themselves," said Brett Durrett, CEO of IMVU, an avatar-based virtual world.

But anyone who's ever spent time in a virtual world knows it's easy to swap gender, age, race and size in a moment's notice and not represent who you really are. People get immersed in the fantasy and can neglect responsibilities and etiquette normally expected of one another.

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"Be clear on the difference between SL and RL -– that's Second Life versus Real Life,” said Don Laabs, senior director of product at Linden Lab, developers of Second Life.

Take stock of your own values ahead of time so that your expectations of virtual date are no different than a real-life relationship. This will ensure that you're not only projecting yourself, but that you're attracting the right kind of person, said Jeff Hancock, an associate professor in Cornell's department of communication.

Respect Yourself and Others

Because it's so easy to create an avatar that embodies an idealized version of oneself, think about the ramifications.

"When people enter virtual worlds and they’re expressing an ideal or fantasy self, unfortunately research shows that when you give people this choice –- women in particular -– tend to sexualize themselves," said Jesse Fox, an assistant professor in the school of communication at Ohio State University.

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“This isn’t an empowering experience, no matter what post-feminist literature wants to suggest," she said.

Fox said this kind of projection perpetuates negative attitudes towards women and promotes an attitude that sexual objectification is acceptable. One study she worked on even showed that hyper-sexualized avatars encourage sexist attitudes and acceptance of the rape myth that provocative women "got what they deserved."

Her advice: Don't demean yourself online. Doing so will only encourage others to treat you negatively. Durrett suggests cultivating your avatar relationship like any healthy real life relationship: check out the other person’s interests, friends, activities and desires to avoid offending anyone.

Love online isn't as easy as it may seem.jf/cultura/Corbis

Be Vigilant

But just because the apple of your avatar eye shares similar interests, that doesn’t mean you should go in for an immediate hug.

“Personal boundaries are just as important in a virtual world as they are in real life,” Durrett stressed.

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While Laabs expounded the positive virtues of Second Life, he acknowledged its darker side. People can be indecent, offensive, intolerant and sexually harass others. People have also reported avatar rape. Typically, users encounter the act through three scenarios: Luring others, purchasing or roll-playing or "griefing" it, which means to cause grief.

Laabs compared the virtual world to a 3-D version of the Web and encourages people to be vigilant. Establish personal boundaries as you might in real life -– through communication via Second Life’s chat rooms, instant messaging and voice chat.

Obey the Rules

You wouldn’t take a date to a Trekkie convention dressed like Han Solo, now would you? The same applies in your virtual world.

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“You need to be true to the experience,” Laabs said. “If you’re in a vampire role-playing area, you need to keep those personas. Otherwise people are just going to kick you out.”

But if you need help learning the ropes, besides Second Life’s quick-start instruction manual, Laabs says the roughly 1 million monthly users will be quick to lend a helping, virtual hand.

Keep in mind that many of the virtual world's codes of conduct are prefaced by the phrase “as you would in real life,” with one glaring difference: You can always create a new character and wipe the slate clean if you mess up.