Have you heard of Omegle? It’s an online anonymous chat website. Participants can use text or webcam to connect with random people. The tagline is Talk to Strangers!
So yeah…It’s a parents’ nightmare. I’ve spent the morning looking into Omegle after a friend tipped me off to it based on a scare her friend’s 13 year old recently had. Not surprisingly, the articles, comments and sample conversations were full of sex and profanity. There’s a lot of messing around with other people because it’s anonymous. So a girl who says she’s 19 and lives on the East coast could actually be a 13 year old boy and his buddies. Or you could run into someone who tries to get your personal info. Or claims his webcam isn’t working but encourages you to use yours. Or you could just meet up with a run of the mill pedophile. I mean, think of it from the pervert’s perspective. It’s a dream come true. It couldn’t be easier to hook up and get off. It’s called cybering. Urban Dictionary.com calls Omegle a feeding ground for pedos.
One girl’s comments really disturbed me. She was writing mockingly about loving pedophiles and I saw them referred to as pedos over and over. Maybe I’m too sensitive to the use of language, but I think we strip words of their power with nonchalant, overuse. For a child who’s been sexually abused by an adult, this isn’t comical material. We abbreviate words everyday use, for texting, for twitter. Izzy thinks I’m embarrassingly old-fashioned on this point, but it matters to me. I’m a poet. I agonize over words, their meanings, connotations and sound. I don’t want to lose that.
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There are a lot of other anonymous chat sites. Sites like Vchatter.com and 360mate.com built right into Facebook. The Vchatter.com site says,
Facebook is the easiest way to complete your profile and build trust to gain followers. [emphasis added]
Call me over protective, but kids building trust with strangers on the internet alarms me. I encourage my kids to take positive risks, to be independent and self-sufficient. I try to balance monitoring them with teaching them. I believe that bad things can happen, but if we add up all our experiences, most would be good or at least neutral. I’m really not a Pollyana type, I just refuse to live in fear (most of the time).
When Izzy was about 15 months old, she wanted to go down the biggest slide at the park. One of those heavy plastic slides that has twists and curves and for part of the slide, your little tike is zooming through a tunnel. It’s a really big slide and Izzy was determined. And clear. She did not want to go through the slide with me. She did not want me to help her climb up. She wanted me to watch and catch her at the end. This is how I learned a lot about Izzy. She climbed up about a third of the way one day. Then a bit further the next. She’d look down and decide to climb back down. One day, she was at the top. And then she was sliding down and laughing and I caught her. I also got chastised by a couple of moms who thought Izzy was way too tiny for that big slide.
My calculated risk taker now has hormones surging, teenage brain trauma and a strong desire for independence. Are all bets off? Can I trust her? Is she safe? I think it’s yes and no to these questions. I like to think that Izzy wouldn’t go off with a total stranger to help him find his lost puppy. But she’s incredibly social and prides herself on knowing people just about everywhere we go. I can see how a site like Omegle would appeal to a chatty, social teen who believes she is stuck at home (again!) with nothing to do (again!). Actually, Omegle was created by a teenager.
Sometimes when I think I’m working for Izzy’s safety, she thinks I don’t trust her. This is a common dilemma for parents. How many times have you said something to the effect–It’s not that I don’t trust you. It’s the rest of the world I’m not sure about? Most teens believe wholeheartedly in their invincibility. This isn’t always a bad thing. They wouldn’t stretch their wings without this surety. We’re here not only to counsel them, but to recognize and love the vulnerability that exists side by side with the big push for freedom. I just don’t want anyone to take advantage of that vulnerability.
Now that I’ve brought up an issue that may leave you with a stomach-turning feeling of dread and sense of overwhelm, I thought I’d offer up a couple of tips and a link to Common Sense Media for more info.
1. Have your child use the computer in an open area of the house. Or if your teen wants to hole up in his/her room, check in often. I take in laundry, ask if Izzy’s hungry, homework done and that sort of thing. She never knows when I’ll knock and pop in. The element of surprise works.
2. Keep track of your child’s passwords. I know some people feel this is a breech of privacy, but I don’t. Facebook isn’t private. A journal is private. A face to face conversation between people can be private. Social networking is not private.
3. Keep the conversation going about these issues. There isn’t one big talk and then you’re done. It’s ongoing. I talk to Izzy and Amalia about a lot of what I write here or am thinking of writing. I solicit their opinions and expertise. Since Izzy is so tech-savvy, I’ll ask her–”Hey, have you heard of BLANK? Someone was telling me about it and…” She usually has interesting bits of info. It opens up the discussion.
4. Get to know your kids’ friends and parents. It really does help to have a community, to share stories and resources, to know how other parents think. It’s easy to lose this when your kids hit middle and high school, but it’s worth the effort (even though it may bug your child).
I wanted to end the week with a cool, fun post and here I am writing about alarming things. Sorry. But I learned a lot from the conversation with my friend and in my research today. I hope it helps you too.
P.S. I am on the fence about creating hotlinks to some of the sites I mentioned today. I really don’t want to advertise and drive more traffic to the site, but readers may want to have an easy way to click over to find out more. For now, I will reserve the use of hyperlinks (most of the time) only to sites I’m recommending. If you have a strong feeling on this, I’d love to hear it.