Getting to meet new people is fun! There's the excitement of bouncing off one's ideas on someone new and exploring alternate perspectives with another person who has similar interests. Besides, there’s the novelty of it. As parents, we all want our kids to be exposed to a variety of people, places, and experiences that shape them into dynamic and inspired adults. But when the person our child is interacting with is a total stranger, with a completely virtual experience that goes beyond our purview and control, is the benefit worth the risk?
Omegle is a website that provides teenagers the enticing proposition of talking to people who are totally unknown. The website's tagline says it all: 'Talk to Strangers'!
So what happens on Omegle? Randomly paired adolescent users engage in chats that are primarily based on instant text message (although conversations can be video-enabled with webcams as well). Invariably, dialogue is initiated by a request for the other person’s age, sex and location - ASL. An acronym the site's subscribers are well acquainted with! Since the website is intended specifically for chatting anonymously with strangers, these three pieces of information - age, sex and location - are valuable filters. Unfortunately, this information can also be used by adults with malicious intentions to identify potential targets.
So why you should be concerned? Well for starters, even the creators of Omegle advise parental supervision for users up to the age of eighteen. Secondly, the activity on the site does not go unnoticed - the time the user's chat began, the user's IP address, their computer's ID tag that is randomly generated along with the same information for the user's chat partner. Everything that the users disclose about themselves - even seemingly harmless yet sensitive and revealing information - is archived on the website's servers for about four months.
Conversations with strangers can be monitored or unmonitored, depending on the user's preference. But while privacy might make it seem like ‘unmonitored’ is the obvious way to go, note that users are warned by Omegle that there is a greater possibility they will find themselves at the receiving end of explicit and inappropriate content when initiating an unmonitored conversation.
And finally, users can save conversations at the end of a session. One, therefore, has no real control over how these strangers your child is interacting with on the website might use all the chat related information in order to serve their ends.
Users can even enter into what is known as 'Spy Mode' in Omegle. In ‘Spy Mode’, they can ask a question to two people engaged in a chat conversation and also view their conversation. Alternately, the 'Spy Mode' feature also allows a user to discuss with another person a question posed by a stranger.
The website hasn't exactly been free from controversy. In 2014, a twenty-two-year-old man sexually assaulted two thirteen-year-old girls he made friends with on Omegle. The girls were lured into a private meeting and later taken to the assaulter's house where the atrocities were perpetrated. In 2017, a virtual assailant manipulated two underage girls into engaging in explicit and inappropriate conversations that were later used to threaten the girls. These are just two examples in a long list of notorious incidents that has earned Omegle dubious credibility.
So how do you safeguard your children from using such a site? In an ideal situation, the best way to steer clear of danger would be to avoid using the site completely. Mentoring your child on the perils of such sites and applications also helps immensely. Setting limits and ground rules while they surf the internet is also advisable. Nevertheless, there are commercially available parental control options that to some extent can help you curb, although not completely rule out, the probability of possible harm.
The question parents ought to be asking themselves is "Is it worth it?" When the site's homepage itself confesses that "Predators have been known to use Omegle", what good could possibly come out of indulging in such websites? And even assuming the positives that can be attributed to the website, they can, perhaps, be accessed in greater measure and with more benefits from other healthier and more transparent avenues. Parental supervision is not just advised, but necessary.
Writing credit: Authored by Prithiv, a Mobicip researcher who writes about the effects of technology on health and well-being.