There are many ways for young people to socialise online in 2020, and amongst platforms such as Tik Tok, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter there's one you may not have heard of: Omegle.
Launched way back in 2009, Omegle is an online free chatroom that lets users log on and pairs them with another person to message or video call them. In todays 'cyber safety' climate it may seem incredibly backward; no safety measures, no idea who you are talking to and a basic interface. The main purpose of the site, as the website advertises, is "talking to strangers!".
While the app is not new, there are concerns it is attracting the attention of a new generation of tweens and teens during COVID-19 isolation with parents discovering their children using it.
"Omegle is an outstanding example of a company that fails the safety test," eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant says. "It offers no function for reporting online abuse or inappropriate behaviour on its site. It provides no safety information."
Talking to strangers is just one of problems with the online chat room. Omegle also offers users "spy-mode" where you ask a question and watch two strangers discuss it, and users can enter both "adult" and "unmoderated" chat rooms, making it an ideal place for predators to contact children. It is different from other social media websites in that users are anonymous and there are no parental controls.
"There is no language censor, questions are often sexual by nature, there is the sharing of inappropriate content and trolls can be rampant," Digital Wellbeing and Online Safety Educator Matine Oglethrope says.
"There is the ability to chat both via text and video and obviously this presents its own problems, particularly when young people are involved."
Although there is an age requirement to sign up, it's one that is easily bypassed. "Users are asked numerous times to verify that they are over 18 years, but it is merely by entering a birth date," Oglethorpe explains.
Unlike many other social websites or apps, Omegle doesn't offer a way to report inappropriate or abusive behaviour, instead it offers the advice: "Use Omegle at your own peril. Disconnect if anyone makes you feel uncomfortable". Although it offers a link for more information on parental and safety controls, the link is inactive and no other information is available.
Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto
"It is little surprise that the site is rife with predatory and illegal content – given this, Parents should not allow their children anywhere near Omegle," Grant says firmly.
"Unfortunately, the ephemeral nature of the content on Omegle, and the borderless nature of the internet, makes it incredibly difficult for the authorities, including our investigators, to take removal or other action."
Oglethorpe recommends kids use safer apps that can be monitored to chat online to their friends, such as Messenger Kids which gives full control of contacts and content to parents or sticking with iMessage where the kids already know their contacts.
"Anytime young people are put on platforms where the sole premise is to hook them up with strangers, we can rest assured the type of people waiting in the wings to pounce," she warns, recommending parents always do a search and review of apps and websites their kids use and have a good play on the app first yourself to see what sort of content they may be exposed to.
- Check apps or games are age-appropriate for your child.
- Turn on privacy and safety settings so they can't share content with, or be contacted by strangers.
- Disable webcam and camera access on their laptops and devices.
- Make sure your child is using devices in common areas of the home – not in bedrooms or bathrooms.
- Use parental controls to help manage your child's online activities.
- Be actively engaged in your child's online lives – co-view and co-play, ask questions and let them know you are there to support them if they feel uncomfortable or upset.
Parents and carers looking for more information to help protect their children online should visit www.esafety.gov.au. The eSafety guide helps parents and carers learn about the latest sites, apps and games their children are using, how you can report inappropriate content and how to protect personal information. There are specific resources for parents of children under 5: https://www.esafety.gov.au/parents/children-under-5