Should parents worry about the new Internet sensation?
by Lynn Harris
February 26, 2010
It’s the international video-chat free-for-all that’s been described as “weirdly magnetic”, “insanely addictive,” a trip – and not necessarily a good one – down a virtual “rabbit hole.” Its go-to-the-next-person prompt is, and we quote, “Looking for a random stranger.” In other words, it’s just the place for a kid and a webcam – not! Here’s what you need to know about the latest Internet sensation, slash, way to freak out parents.
What is it?
Basically, ChatRoulette.com is Skype meets YouTube meets Omegle meets Craigslist meets Hot or Not meets open-mike night meets a bus station. You log on (no registration required), activate your Web cam, click “Play,” and – sort of as if you’ve hit the lever of a slot machine – an anonymous fellow user pops up in the other camera window. Like what you see? Stay and chat via text or voice. Don’t? Whatevs! Give the NEXT button the mighty click of a mean girl – assuming the other user hasn’t, ouch, NEXTed you first – and move on. Now you’ll get a peek at someone else.
Keep in mind, of course, that what you see – based on fifteen minutes of my life that I’ll never get back – may include: a guy with a Fu Manchu and a submarine sandwich, male genitalia, a floppy-haired boy bopping to French techno, three white-blond Nordic tweens futzing with the camera, male genitalia, a polar bear doll next to a speech bubble saying “BOOBS?”, two girls in bras kneeling come-hitherly on a bed, male genitalia, and a guy shelving books across the room who I guess forgot the thing was on. Oh, and also, I almost forgot, male genitalia. To be fair, other users, while noting a comparable genitalia/mammary-request count, have also reported charming, creative, gotta-love-the-Interwebs interactions: a serenade from a guitar player, serious actors performing a scene, a Tarot reading, a virtual dance party.
ChatRoulette is the brainchild of, true story, an actual child – the geektastic Andrey Ternovskiy, 17, of Moscow, who launched the site last year (“for fun”) with neither fanfare nor marketing, its traffic reaching a reported 20,000 users through buzz alone. The site’s design and function are (snicker) bare bones, with a practically Atari-like elegance. There are no profiles, no filtering, no recording, no searching, no “favoriting,” no “friending.” That’s in part why it’s also a meme factory, spawning a sub-genre of “missed connections” as well as galleries of funny/ironic screengrabs, and, of course, Catroulette.
How Much Should I Worry?
Chatroulette’s rudimentary functionality is also what makes it, in some ways, not quiiiiiite the parents’ worst nightmare – “Lock up your daughters!” – it’s reported to be.
To be sure, as technology journalist and Internet safety advocate Larry Magid, co-director of ConnectSafely.org and founder of SafeKids.com, confirmed to Babble, “Clearly ChatRoulette, as it is currently operated, is not for kids.” There is a no-one-under-16 rule, but no place to enter a date of birth (as if that’s a real deterrent), and the stated warning that obscene content will get you blocked is toothless for a million reasons. The relatively obvious danger is that your kid will see something pornographic or upsetting that you don’t want to have to process with him/her. The less obvious one is that your kid will feel repeatedly rejected – even adults report that the feeling of being summarily NEXTed over and over can “e-viscerate” one’s self-esteem. And of course your kids could communicate “with people they probably shouldn’t be speaking with,” says Magid, not to mention, perhaps most chillingly, that they “might be enticed to act in an inappropriate manner in front of the camera.” Basically – and here again we repeat the mantra of the vigilant parent in the age of technology – people could do all sorts of freaky things you never even thought of.
But the good news is that no video or text is recorded or stored anywhere, so nothing damning will keep little Declan out of Duke. And no one can find your kid again, or vice versa, except by outlandish chance. No one can inflict sustained bullying. No one can create any kind of relationship with your kid over time or lure your kid anywhere. Small comfort, maybe, but it bears mentioning.
What to do? You could disable your Web cam, if it’s external, but – contrary to reports that entering the site automatically fires up your camera – that won’t stop your kid from cam-off one-way browsing. So if you’re really concerned, simply block the site with a parental-filtering gizmo (for some good ones, see sidebar). Experts say, though, that it’s also advisable to talk to your kid about what they might stumble upon online, rather than laying down the law, no questions asked. To be fully informed, of course, you might have to visit ChatRoulette yourself.
- Computers and the Internet
- 3 Most Common Mistakes: The Internet
- The Littlest Surfers: How preschoolers use the internet, and how to keep them safe online.
This article was written by Lynn Harris for Babble.com, the magazine and community for a new generation of parents.