Chatroulette is a social media website in which any two random internet users can chat, face to face, in a matter of seconds. Here’s what you should know about this controversial internet phenomenon.
by Bethany Young Hardy
“A chat room is not a place to make friends,” says Sharon Hamilton, founder of Educate2Protect, a nonprofit established to protect children from predatory behaviors. Unfortunately, thanks to a hot chat room on the web, more and more kids may be logging on in hopes of doing just that.
Chatroulette, a website created by a 17-year-old Russian high school student named Andrey Ternovskiy, provides any person who has a webcam with free instant access to another person via video chat. Once connected, users can either stay in the chat room as long as they like, or move on to a different person by clicking “next.”
The site encourages reporting “inappropriate” use and blocks those “broadcasting obscene, offending, pornographic material.” But that hasn’t prevented inappropriate behavior.
Chatroulette has earned the ire of parents and internet security experts. Catalin Cosoi, senior antispam researcher at internet security firm BitDefender, says the site poses specific dangers to children, including “exposure to indecency, pornographic images or videos, and cyberbullying.”
“Although you always have the choice of going to a different user if you don't like who or what you first [saw], that doesn't mean that you are not exposed [to inappropriate behavior or images] for a few seconds or minutes,” he warns.
“Webcam access is one of the first things that online predators ask kids for,” says Sharon Hamilton. “The intention of Chatroulette is for social media connections, but there are no security controls. Unfortunately, it’s another vehicle for a predator to get to a child.”
“My son thought he was conversing with a 30-year-old woman”
Hamilton has personal experience with online predators.
The Colorado mother of three had grown concerned about her 15-year-old son’s involvement in an online gaming community. Her son had befriended the leader of his “team,” and that friend had requested that they move their online conversations to a cell phone.
Although Hamilton set strict rules for her son to follow with his new phone, she noticed that he had been deleting text messages. One day, she took hold of the phone. “I powered it up and read a message: ‘Good night Babe,’” Hamilton recalls. “My son thought he was conversing with a 30-year-old woman.”
Hamilton knew better. She set off on a digital chase, tracing the phone number to Virginia and an anonymous voice mailbox. “I knew it was a predator because it was a generic voicemail,” Hamilton says.
She left a message on the voice mailbox, threatening the person that if they contacted her son again, she would contact the authorities. She did a search to find a name registered to the number. It was a man’s name. She attempted to get copies of the text messages through her carrier, but she learned it was not possible to do so without a subpoena. A friend who worked in law enforcement told Hamilton she caught the predator “too soon.”
“Had I allowed the predator to pursue my son, I would have had access to more identifying information,” she says. “To me, that’s backwards.”
The experience led Hamilton to form Educate2Protect, where she works to educate children and their parents about cyberbullying, sexting, and other inappropriate behavior. She has also launched a technology service called KidPhoneAdvocate, which protects children from cell phone predators by providing parental controls for cell phones.
Parents need to get up to speed
Hamilton acknowledges the challenge posed for parenting children by sites like Chatroulette, which can seem exciting and mysterious to kids. “First and foremost, as a parent, understand and educate yourself on what the site entails,” she advises.
“Parents should be extremely aware of sites like Chatroulette and seek more information themselves before explaining the menaces to their children,” Catalin Cosoi adds. “I recommend that parents spend 10 minutes on the website in order to get a 'hands on' experience.”
Parents can also use parental control software to block their children’s access to the site, Cosoi says.
A website called Chatroulette Map may also help discourage untoward behavior on the site simply by unmasking the identities of Chatroulette users. The site posts screen grabs of Chatroulette users on Google Maps by tracking their IP addresses.
Internet safety tips for kids
Whether using Chatroulette, Facebook, a message board, or any other social media, kids should follow these safety tips from Educate2Protect:
Bethany Young Hardy is a mom, writer, and public relations consultant. Her experience includes political, nonprofit, and healthcare communications. Follow Bethany on Twitter.