We all have many concerns when it comes to our privacy. There are so many things to think about when it comes to identity theft or being hacked when using public Wi-Fi or wireless routers. But do parents of young children think about what could happen if their children are given total, unsupervised access to the Internet? Judging by some of the things I see and read, I don’t think they do. Children as young as 8 years old are being allowed to log onto the Internet with no parental supervision, which means that these parents either don’t realize that this can put their children in danger, or that these parents refuse to believe that their children will find dangerous places on-line.
Do Not Talk to Strangers
There was a time back in the 60s and 70s when parents were criticized for using the television set as a babysitter. Busy parents would sit their children in front of the television to watch cartoons while they did their daily chores. The children would be occupied for hours watching their favorite characters get into all kinds of mischief while mom and dad did the yard work, cooking and cleaning. Today, instead of the television, more and more parents are sitting their children in front of the computer to occupy themselves on the Internet. The cartoon characters that the children of the 60s and 70s watched got into a lot of trouble, but those characters never enticed the children watching to come join them. With the Internet, it’s a completely different story. There are sites that children are finding that allow them to talk to random strangers. These strangers sometimes will get the children’s trust, then will get the children’s personal information like full names, addresses and telephone numbers. You wouldn’t allow your 8 year old to walk the streets of a large city alone, would you? Well, allowing your 8 year old to “walk” the Internet alone is just as dangerous.
The solution isn’t as simple as not having Internet service. Because of budget cuts, schools all over the country are turning to the use of e-textbooks because it’s just too expensive to buy new books each year for each child. In order to access these e-textbooks, students must log onto the schools’ websites. Here, they can not only study, but they can also get extra help with their homework from teachers who volunteer to tutor. In other words, today, having a computer with Internet access is a necessity for all students, from elementary school through college. Since parents also need to use the Internet for various personal and business projects, it’s not uncommon for each member of the household to have their own computer. Each computer is not only Internet ready, but each one likely has a webcam built right in. It’s dangerous to allow a child to have a computer with Internet access in his or her own room, but the combination of Internet and webcam makes it all the more dangerous. There are parents who will not even allow their children to walk to a school that may only be a block or two away, but they will feel it’s perfectly all right to allow those same children to be alone on the Internet. Parents: you teach your children not to talk to strangers on the city streets, but now, you need to extend this to the Internet. Word is spreading from child to child about sites that will let them talk to strangers. Make no mistake about this; if your child has not yet heard of or found one of these sites, they soon will and you need to be ready for it.
One of these “talk to strangers” sites is Omegle. The concept of the site was to use the Internet as a meeting place for people who would normally never have a chance to meet in real life. It is a place where strangers can chat with other strangers from all over the world. Omegle was created by Leif K-Brooks, an 18 year old living in Brattleboro, Vermont. The site was up and running on March 25, 2009. Within one month of going live, there were 150,000 users. The number of users is not going down and the site is still going strong. There is no registration necessary to use the site, there is no charge for its use and it’s not monitored. Yes, there is a disclaimer that says that users must be at least 18 years old, but on the Internet, you can be any age you choose. That being said, Omegle is one of the more popular sites of very young children.
In the first year or two, Omegle’s chat was done via text only. Today, users have a choice between text and video. Mixing a child, a stranger and video chat can be a very dangerous combination. One young girl’s story comes to mind when I think of children video chatting with strangers: Amanda Todd. Canadian teenager Amanda Todd was just 13 years old when she found that she could video chat with strangers from around the world. She was a pretty girl who liked when boys and even grown men would tell her how beautiful she was. One day, a man she was chatting with convinced her to lift her shirt and flash her breasts for him. She did it. What she didn’t know was that during that brief flash, the man on the other end of the camera took a screenshot of her. She didn’t realize that one frame of a video chat could be frozen like that.
During her video chats, Amanda didn’t think there was anything wrong with giving her name. The man who Amanda flashed on camera knew her name, made a page on Facebook showing that he was a boy Amanda’s age and sent her a friend request. Amanda accepted. This “boy” told her that the following semester, he would be going to her school and asked her if she could get her friends to accept him as a Facebook friend. Once he had her entire friends list, he proceeded to send each one on that list the photo he took of Amanda lifting her shirt. He also sent the photo to the school’s website for everyone to see. That one moment of what Amanda thought of as teenage silliness made her a target for bullying. Everyone in the school called her nasty names and not even her closest friends would associate with her anymore. Amanda was very depressed for months and her parents decided that the best thing to do for the family would be to move. Things were good for a while and Amanda was making new friends at her new school. She even made a new Facebook page listing her new school and with a new list of friends. This is what her tormenter was waiting for. He again sent her a friend request that she accepted and he sent the photo to everyone on the new list and her new school’s site. Amanda couldn’t take any more. She wrote flashcards and used them to tell her story in a YouTube video. On October 10, 2012, just a few days after posting her video on YouTube, Amanda’s parents found her hanged body. Amanda’s tormenter has disappeared and has never been identified.
The story of Amanda Todd isn’t the only one of its kind and it demonstrates what can happen to a child when left alone with the Internet. Children do things on the spur of the moment and think nothing of it, like flashing a stranger. They sometimes are only thinking in the moment, not of any consequences that their actions might have. Aside from worrying that they may be inappropriate photos of their children floating around the Internet, parents also need to think about what information their children are giving out that could become a privacy issue. There have been children chatting on-line, thinking they are chatting with a child their age, so they have given information such as full name, phone number address and school name. The “child” they thought could be a new pen pal or foreign boyfriend or girlfriend could in reality be a pedophile. Supposedly, the chat on these sites is anonymous, but that doesn’t stop people of any age from freely giving out information. Not only do some chatters lie about their ages, they also lie about their locations, so one who is thought to be living in Asia could really be right about the corner. Even with only a name, someone could look that name up on Facebook and get all the information he or she needs in order to stalk someone.
In addition to Omegle, there is another site where anyone, including children, can randomly chat with strangers. The name of this site is Chatroulette. Once again, a teenager created this site. He is Andrey Ternovsky of Moscow, Russia, who was just 17 when he came up with the concept. The idea came to him when he was watching The Deer Hunter. In that movie, prisoners of war were forced to play Russian Roulette as a way for their guards to find amusement. Chatroulette is like Russian Roulette because every connection could bring you in contact with a different stranger each time, or you could connect with the one you just ended a conversation with. This site covers the world just like Omegle, but the one difference is that you need to register to use Chatroulette. This may seem like it would make it difficult for a child to use the site, but it’s not. Registration is free, so no credit card or bank account information would be needed.
Unofficially, a study was made on the subject of Chatroulette. Here is what this study brought to light:
- Connections with and from people in the US accounted for over half of all connections made.
- Only 11% of all connections were female, while 89% were male.
- Many video connections showed nothing but an empty chair.
- 1 of every 8 connections that showed someone on the other side of the camera was of a naked and/or masturbating person.
Will you still allow your child to use the Internet without your supervision?
One other thing to consider that is very troubling is that both sites, Chatroulette and Omegle, as that you allow them access to your webcam. A lot of children who have computers set up in their rooms don’t turn them off and always have the Internet running. Think of how remote access to your child’s webcam can impact that child if the webcam was turned on when your child was dressing for school, or even just sleeping.
Concern has been voiced about these sites. American psychiatrist, Dr. Keith Ablow, who is also a best-selling author commented about Chatroulette that, “Parents should keep all their children off the site because it’s much too dangerous for children. It’s a predator’s paradise. This is one of the worst faces of the Internet that I’ve seen. It’s disconnecting human relationships rather than connecting them.” Really, now?
On CBS’s The Early Show, Ernie Allen, President of the National Center of Missing & Exploited Children said that Chatroulette is “the last place parents want their kids to be. This is a huge red flag; this is extreme social networking. This is a place kids are going to gravitate to.”
Chatroulette creator Andrey Ternovsky was quoted in The New York Times as saying, “Everyone finds his own way of using the site. Some think it is a game, others think it is a whole unknown world, others think it is a dating service. I think it’s cool that such a concept can be useful for so many people.” When asked, he said he was aware of some people masturbating or standing around naked in front of their cameras, but added that this is not a use he agrees with.
Many parents will feel that their children would never know how to find sites such as these, but that’s not the case. Don’t be so quick to say, “Not MY child” because it’s only a matter of time until your child will hear about these sites from their friends or classmates. Children are finding and using Omegle and Chatroulette with disastrous results. The only way to stop this is for all parents of young children to closely supervise them each time they go on the Internet. Take the computer out of your child’s room and put it in a common area of the house. Shut it down with a parental password in place when the child goes to bed so there is no temptation to go on-line after the parents have gone to bed. Even though you know you can’t keep your child innocent until they move out of your house, you still don’t want them seeing adult content when they’re still in elementary school. If you make a small effort, your child’s privacy, and yours, can stay safe.
For more tips and suggestions on how to keep you and your family safe, please download the free Privacy Guide offered at the top of this page. You will be glad you did.
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