I was in L.A. this week, visiting with a friend of mine. We were chatting away when, like it always happens when moms get together, our conversation turned toward what's new with our kids.
Kathleen Williams is a mom of two teenage girls. She told me that just the day before, she had to crack down on her teenage daughters' internet use. The two high school-age girls were participating on a new site--chatroulette.com--which is quickly becoming an internet phenomenon among teenagers.
Chatroulette is an online forum where anyone with a webcam can log on and connect with another user chosen by the site entirely at random. If you don't like who you're talking to, you hit "next" and you're whisked off to another one-on-one video chat connection. You never know who you might end up talking to, hence the name, "Chatroulette." Log on and in seconds you could be talking with someone from next door, Japan, or even the Jonas Brothers (the band's been known to talk to fans on Chatroulette from time to time).
"At first, I thought, 'That's kind of cool,'" Kathleen said, speaking from her background in marketing and entertainment (she runs the consulting firm PobLab Marketing). "You can talk to people all over the world. Brands could really use this to build buzz"
But there's a darker side to this buzzworthy site. Kathleen asked if she could check out Chatroulette and her girls immediately told her, "No way--you wouldn't want to see some of the stuff that's out there." Of course, she and her husband took a look right away.
"Literally on the third screen, we saw some guy with his pants down," she told me. "My husband and I looked at each other and said, 'Oh my God, this is the most disturbing thing.'"
The site's ease-of-use and voyeuristic appeal leads to a large percentage of (predominantly male) users using webcams to expose themselves anonymously online. I won't link to the other articles here, but it's not hard to run a quick Google search to see reports of the disturbing things users regularly find on Chatroulette. I logged into the site for a look myself and, within seconds, found the same thing. I now agree wholeheartedly with Kathleen's sentiments:
"It's like inviting pedophiles into your home."
She's since banned her girls from using the site and promised to take away their internet privileges if she found out they were logging on again. Her family's experience brings up a good point on internet safety and teens--even if our kids are older, we still need to check in and monitor their use.
Kathleen's daughters are pretty open with her about growing trends. They know she needs to stay on top of what's hot for her job, so they regularly discuss what's new and what their friends are talking about. But she would have never known about this site without checking in with them in the first place.
Nowadays, with smartphones and laptops, teenagers are online virtually every waking moment. Protecting our kids starts with talking to them about internet safety and staying on top of what sites they're using. It's a tough job because there's something new out there nearly every day. Kathleen did the right thing by opening up that conversation with her teens.
I read an article in Time recently about the choking game. This is a sad story that's been in and out of the news now for over a decade--children try and achieve a high by cutting off the blood supply to their brain by choking themselves. It's a dangerous trend that's caused deaths across the world. There are even websites devoted to videos of people playing the game or filled with how-to's. The article pointed out that two percent of all parents had talked to their kids about the choking game, yet as many as half of all teens knew someone who'd played it.
Protecting our kids online or in the real world is every parent's job. It only takes a few minutes to check in with our kids, see what their browsing habits are, and ask them about their online activity. If you do come across a site that's potentially dangerous or iffy at best, share what you've learned with other parents or your care providers, too. News spreads fast in the teen world, but it can travel just as quickly through the adult circles. Stay safe by spreading the word!
Here are some other ways to help keep our children safe online:
- Keep the computer in a public area--many families use their living room or a common area as their "computer room." You don't have to stand over your kid's shoulder the whole time, but it does allow you to monitor their surfing at a glance. That's what we do in our home.
- Most internet providers give you parental-control options that allow you to block access to sites or eliminate whole categories of websites. Check with yours to see what tools they have or purchase a software program that does the same thing.
- Web history -browsers store your web history. You can regularly review your kids' if necessary. This isn't foolproof, though, as many browsers have a "private" function that doesn't save cookies or a list of visited sites.
If you're looking for more tips, this KidsHealth.org article has some great suggestions.
I hope this post has helped tip off other parents to a new, potentially hazardous site. Chatroulette, by the way, does allow users to "report inappropriate content," but the site's terms and conditions also read, "Everything supplied by the user you are connected with is not property of Chatroulette, and therefore Chatroulette is not responsible for what you will find." As a parent, that's just not good enough for me.
If you have other sites parents should be aware of or ideas for keeping our children safe, please share them in the comments!