The Real [And Unreal] Risks Of ChatRoulette To Teens & Tweens
- February 23rd, 2010
- 3 Comments
By now you’ve probably heard about ChatRoulette, a social site that randomly pairs up strangers with web cams. The reception from tech and pop culture blogs has mostly been one of weary amusement at the assortment of costumed strangers, cats and, yes, x-rated content you’d expect to come out of a set-up like this one. Not surprisingly, there’s also been an explosion of tumblr blogs featuring screenshots that leverage the content for prime internet meme-based comedy (see CatRoulette, CHATROULOLZ, etc.).
As a twentysomething internet geek, that droll commentary/juvenile humor mix has pretty much been the extent of my ChatRoulette experience (although I do know a good number of folks my age who—mostly in groups—have braved the actual site looking for their own material). Personally, I’d give it a few more weeks before the joke gets old for most and the buzz dies down.
Of course, any platform that lends itself to youth (or anyone on the site) behaving badly, especially in a public forum, also has the potential to revive the more serious talk of stranger danger with older visitors using the site to prey on younger users or, more likely, feeding into the recent panic over “sexting” with teens striking a racy pose and regretting the screenshot scandal that follows. While I’m not sure how many teens are hearing about the site yet, or are bothering with it (Anastasia will be sure to keep her ears open and report back after next week when she talks to Chicago teens), our sense is if teens are on it—they are either a) bored and looking for the same type of funny or shocking material as my age group or b) at-risk teens actively looking for x-rated chat with strangers (more on that below). But the average teen and most of those who make up the 20% who a while back reported “sending or posting naked or semi-naked pictures of themselves” aren’t looking to do so for the benefit of strangers. They’re sending them to potential romantic interests, boyfriends or girlfriends. It’s part of the reason why it does come as such a shock when the images go viral and reach the rest of school… or authorities.
The more pressing and realistic concern here is the one that was recently raised by Larry Magid over tweens and younger kids possibly exploring the site and getting exposed to non-child friendly images and strangers. As Anastasia pointed out, they have a lot more time on their hands than teens occupied with friends, homework and life outside the house, and with so much of it spent online, the chances of wandering on to ChatRoulette alone or with friends gets higher. In a lot of ways, it reminds of the early days of AOL when tweens would almost dare each other to go into chat rooms not to give away identifying information or engage in cybersex, but more for the sheer shock value of what strangers would say to them and what they could get away with saying back. Meanwhile, mom and dad would be none the wiser…
Despite technical differences between then and now (kids can’t exactly pretend to be adults on a video site), the takeaway for parents of kids, tweens and teens (especially those that are at-risk), educators and anyone in the online safety space remains the same: As Larry advocates in his measured response (definitely worth a read), it’s important to raise parents’ awareness of these sites and initiate discussions around appropriate and inappropriate online behavior.
On a final note, I’m sure there will be a few cautionary tales to come out of the great ChatRoulette experiment—and it may very well be from adult users. Either way, here’s hoping we can all learn a lesson in sharing and oversharing online.
For more coverage of the tween space, check out the Ypulse Tweens Channel.