Social Networking: Child’s Play or Russian Roulette?

IB Publisher Jody Glynn Patrick blends work and life in this very clear departure from both her column for In Business magazine, and the other bloggers. Awarded national recognition for her previous work as a newspaper columnist, she brings us all back "Closer to Home" with her insights and remembrances. A nice place to be "After Hours." Check back often! Read Full Bio

I once worked as supervisor of a Colorado child abuse and neglect intake unit, directing the activities of about 30 caseworkers — and for that and other reasons, I’m now the "Safe From Harm" trainer for the Salvation Army. So I’ve been putting together more recent news clips about child protection for that mission, and doing so, learned about a huge cyber-threat to the children you love — one that you might want to know about, too.

"As a parent, imagine your child sitting in the perceived safety of his/her bedroom while an infinite number of strangers are lined up in the hall to go into the room and meet with your child face-to-face," advised Scott Story, District Attorney in Jefferson County, Colorado (where I once worked). "That’s Chatroulette in a nutshell."

The D.A. took his concerns to the public on in March of this year to try and alert parents what is going on in many of their own homes without their knowledge. I’m passing along the story because in November 2009, a 17-year old Russian teenager launched Chatroulette, the webcam-based social networking site that now has more than 1.5 million hits per day. It is now a U.S. phenomenon, and American teenagers (and pedophiles) are a growing segment using it.

Experts are predicting that Chatroulette already is a far more "dangerous and addicting" site than Facebook and MySpace, and that users are keeping it as secret as possible, not wanting people like parents to know about it and (subsequently) to restrict their access to it.

Essentially, visitors to the site need only state that they are 16 (screenshots prove many, many, many are much younger). It is based on the roulette model, reports, and so their user’s webcam is connected to the webcam of a random stranger. "Either person can decide to chat and watch the other or hit the ‘next’ button."

The danger, of course, is the graphic possibilities, which are substantially high due to the "Chatroulette parties" springing up, where kids get together to try their luck with the strangers. The sexual curiosity is natural, but instead of Googling "nude" to satisfy the wonder of what the opposite sex looks like (or grabbing Mom’s graphic novel or Uncle Sal’s porn magazine) — this is the real deal with real adult pedophiles a click away. And that is dangerous, dangerous, dangerous.

Let’s say it like it is: teens at a party have a "group judgment meter" set substantially lower than you’d like the dials to be set for your particular pre-teen or teen. Teenagers do not always think things through in a group — things like the fact that a poor judgment disrobing (this playful "private interaction with a new friend") — sometimes with a paid teen "front" soliciting the behavior — could be up on the Internet, feeding well-established child porn sites, within minutes. People sell and share images of minor girls who agreed to lift shirts on the dare of friends, and sexually curious and expressive boys make great targets.

A recent undercover investigation by the Cyber Crimes Unit of the Texas Attorney General revealed that "nearly half of the randomly selected users encountered by investigators immediately exposed themselves and conducted sexually explicit acts on camera," reported Other studies I found conclude that as many as 15% of teenage online users have a contact online that is sexual in nature — many of other teens just "being stupid" online. One is seven kids is estimated to have a suspect contact, but 1 in 20 encounters may be termed an "aggressive sexual solicitation."

Warning: POS
If you notice that your child types "POS" with you nearby, it means "Parents Over Shoulder." "KPC" means "Keeping Parents Clueless." Growing in use are the phrases "IWSN" and "GYPO" and "NIFOC" — "I Want Sex Now," "Get Your Pants Off," and "Nude In Front Of Camera." You may not recognize these acronyms, but sexual predators are very well versed in the lingo, and the children that you love may also be versed in it. The bigger question is whether or not they have the judgment or constraint not to throw those initials out to a person they feel safe meeting in a "harmless roulette game" with "people who live far away."

Nothing is far away when someone is filming child pornography using the webcam you bought for your kid.

And another threat to be concerned about….
Older adults tend to see the computer as a "glorified typewriter." It isn’t.

Cyberbullying, another online threat, has resulted in at least five young victim suicides, and this is particularly disturbing because kids usually start targeting each other around the ages of 6 or 7 (the behavior tends to drop off around the age of 14).

Tagging is where two or more bullies target a specific child and work together to harass that child in class, over lunchtime, and at recess, and when the child is at home, too, using cell phones and email accounts as well as physical pushes and shoves and verbal taunts and threats. This phenomenon starts young and the threat really doesn’t subside until your "child" graduates from college and leaves the scene of the harassment or constant influence of the small peer group who targeted him or her. And all teens are susceptible to it.

Cyber harassment is far more insidious and threatening than the dumb stuff we went through in years past because of the 24/7 access a stranger or "friend" has to your home computer or your child’s cell phone. It is essential that parents monitor a beginning, young child’s e-mail account as well as their access to online sites — and that is really hard for me to write, because I believe that children deserve privacy in order to fully develop into trusting and trusted adults. But our first priority has to be child protection.

And do keep in mind that most children do not tell that cyber bullying is happening to them, and in fact, will deny it, fearing retribution from the stalker. Instead, they live in mortal fear of a physical encounter with their bullying peer. We don’t have to think about that too much to understand why school phobia may not have as much to do with the physical building or the teacher as it might be attributed to what happens inside, and why a third-party counselor may be so important when a parent becomes aware that a child has this fear. School phobia may not be as free-floating a concern, or imaginary, as we think, and it may take someone else to learn what’s really going on in their inner (and outer) world.

Just thought you’d like to know….

Sign up for the free IB Update — your weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices and the names you need to know. Click here.