The Watching Facebook blog has become a sort of online child predator archive. I first came across the site by a parent who wanted to bring the site to my attention so that I could share with all of you. Upon checking it out, I wasn’t only blown away by the sheer volume of the content that was being uncovered, but by the type of content—child porn, sex offenders, pedophiles—you name it, it was there.
It sickened me and kept me up at night thinking about those children’s faces, and asking out loud, “Why isn’t anyone doing anything about this?” I couldn’t imagine doing the job of all those law enforcement officers and devoted individuals who work for the Internet Crimes Against Children’s group and at the National Center for Missing and Exploit Children, who, thank goodness, work every day to catch these people.
While the Watching Facebook blog mainly focuses on issues like child pornography and pedophilia on Facebook, the blogger also points out the patterns of communication/content sharing that can be found on the profile pages and groups that pedophiles create on Facebook. One of the patterns pointed out was a site called TinyChat.com, and how sex predators use it to chat with kids. This is the site that I want you to be aware about.
TinyChat is essentially a free-for-all video chat room service—meaning, everyone and anyone can start a video chat room about anything. Once the room is created, the webcam feed of each user is displayed in the middle of the page and users can chat with each other in real time either via text or voice. If users would rather just join an already-existing chat room, they can do that as well as there are dozens upon dozens of them that are already live.
I created a mock profile and began joining chat rooms that were already in session. First off, the site’s homepage screams “Come on in!” to kids as it’s decorated with kid-friendly sprites and vibrant colors. The sign-up process is very simple, as is the site navigation, making it super easy for kids to get in and start video chatting with strangers.
Of the rooms that were available—and there were about 100 or so—I went into 10. Of the 10, three had live streaming porn from someone’s webcam, and almost all of them had some instance of bullying, flirting, or harassment. In fact, there were some rooms that were purely dedicated to watching a girl take her clothes off in front of her webcam. Even more shocking, a couple of the rooms had grown men exposing themselves via their webcams. And though they were being booted by the chat host, these men were rejoining the chat seconds later.
That said, most of the chat rooms were just filled with a dozen or so kids and teens that were streaming from a computer in their room–usually on their bed. Needless to say, this is a reflection on us as parents. I certainly know we can’t supervise our children 100% of the time. We can, however, require them to use their computer in a central area of the house, or with the door open.
While thinking through a solution to the “problem”, it’d be nice to make things easier for us parents if we had an easy way to disable the webcam. Then again, most kids know how to download new software to re-enable it. Using third-party software to block downloading can be aggravating and not very practical. For example, I found that my teens couldn’t download applications, permission slips, etc.—things that shouldn’t have necessarily been blocked.
As parents of the digital generation, it would be foolish to push the Internet to the side as something that we “don’t have the time to understand”. The bottom line is, we have to be right beside our kids when it comes to their online safety and privacy. To help you accomplish that, there are several really great resources out there—YoursphereForParents being one of them.
David Dennis from Microsoft said it well, “Sensationalism aside, as with all types of digital entertainment and Internet use, parents are the first and best line of defense when it comes to ensuring their kids stay safe online, whether playing games or using the Internet.” And how is this fulfilled? Through education and open dialogue with your kids. Talk to them about what they’re doing online, who they’re talking to, the websites they visit, etc.
In addition, make sure you take a few minutes to learn how to use the content filters on your child’s/teen’s web browser. If they have their own laptop, take it away from them for a few minutes and block sites like TinyChat—there are much safer places where they can network with their friends. With all the privacy, cyberbullying, and sextortion issues going on these days, a free-for-all video chat room is the last place they need to be.