Have you heard of Chatroulette? Because your teenager probably has. Chatroulette is the latest online craze. Although it’s not targeted towards teenagers, Chatroulette is gaining more and more popularity with all ages.
Numbers are unavailable as to how many teens are using Chatroulette, since the site doesn’t record anything about its members. Which may be part of the reason why Chatroulette is popular with teenagers. With a click of the mouse, teenagers using Chatroulette can connect and chat anonymously via video with another user somewhere in the world.
Loading the Chamber
Chatroulette was developed by Andrey Ternovskiy, a 17-year-old from Moscow, Russia. It launched in November of 2009. It’s now estimated that the site has 1.5 million viewers worldwide.
The concept is simple: Go to Chatroulette.com. Click “connect.” You’re then connected, at random, to some other user. Your computer’s video camera shows you; the other user’s camera shows them. In the middle, there’s a screen where you can type to one another (you can also chat using the video camera if you enable it, similar to the way you’d use Skype.) If you’re not interested in chatting with the person you see, you click “next” to get a brand-new person, somewhere in the world.
It’s a neat concept. But here’s why Chatroulette should be bothersome to parents of teenagers: While the terms of service ask you to be over 16, there’s no check to make sure that’s true. There’s no login and, for the average user, no way to really check the location or identity of who you’re chatting with. Moreover, there’s no way to control what you see. You get to peek into people’s bedrooms, offices, dorm room—and, in some cases, you see more than you bargained for.
Pulling the Trigger
For this story, I logged on to Chatroulette four times from times ranging anywhere from five to 30 minutes. The partners I connected with were overwhelmingly male, and most looked to be anywhere from their late teens to mid-20s. I had two nice conversations—one with a young man on his own and one with a group of teen boys. Both claimed to be from France, which is something I can’t verify. We talked about school and Chatroulette. Both groups admitted there were “a lot of weirdos,” as the individual guy put it.
The other encounters were less pleasant.
Seven times I clicked “next” only to have my chat screen filled with male genitalia. Once it was a woman in her bra. And five different partners started off our conversation by asking me to take off my top.
“You don’t know what you’re going to get,” says Dr. Andrea Bonior, a clinical psychologist and a professor of psychology at Georgetown University. “Between violent or sexual images staring you in the face—or just your average exhibitionist.”
And there’s another “fun” twist to Chatroulette—the person on the other end of the line can record his or her sessions, without the consent or knowledge of the chat partner—and upload it to any video-sharing site. In fact, if you don’t want to go to Chatroulette yourself, you can go to YouTube to see other people’s chats they’ve uploaded.
Is Your Teen Playing?
Perhaps teens have always been interested in the thrill of meeting someone random, of a voyeuristic peek into someone else’s life. “The notion of this has been around forever—calling party lines, even prank calls back in the day when you dialed a random number to see what happens,” says Bonior. “There’s an attraction because it’s kind of dangerous. You can’t predict exactly what’s going to happen, but you think it’s going to be something really exciting, so you keep going again and again.”
Because of my involvement in a number of community activities, I have a number of Facebook friends who are teenagers. I often use them to get me sources for a story. When I put out a call about this story, I got a number of responses. When I explained that Chesapeake Family won’t interview a minor without the consent of their parents, every single teenager refused to talk to me. When I asked why, they cited two reasons: their parents didn’t know they used Chatroulette, and they didn’t want their parents to know.
“Would you want your 15-year-old daughter having no shade on her windows whatsoever and let the general public just walk by her window — not only to see what she’s doing, but to show her what they’re doing?” asks Bonior. “That’s kind of what this is. Granted, it’s an anonymous stranger, but you’re opening a window where they can see and be seen.”
Bonior is especially worried about users—teens and adults—who have a history of sexual violence or trauma in their past. “It can do real damage. If you have some sort of trauma history and you’re staring at something intrusive or violating, that can be very disturbing.”
Any software-blocking site should be able to block Chatroulette.com, but many teens like to use the site as a group, so your teen could be using it at a friend’s house. It may be impossible for you to entirely block access to the site, but that doesn’t mean you should give up.
“it’s very important to have a discussion,” says Bonior. “It’s best if a parent sets limit and that boundary is clear, but the reasons for that boundary need to be discussed and understood.
“A lot of teenagers really don’t get it, why this can be something that can hurt them, You’ll have much better success enforcing the limit if you explain to them exactly why this isn’t a good idea Listen to their thoughts as to why they wanted to do it and say, “I understand it seems like it’s fun—here are reasons why it’s not.’ You have to have the boundary and the enforcement, but you also have to have the rationale. They may listen, they may not, but at least something has been taught.”