My concern in this section is with the specific aspects of chat rooms that relate to online predators.16 To briefly summarize, a chat room is an online forum in which live conversations (whether text, audio, or video) take place between strangers. Given everything you’ve already read in this chapter about predators, the risks of chat rooms should be blindingly obvious. Meet and talk with complete strangers online? I wonder who’s going to show up!
As I write and speak on a variety of topics relating to Internet safety, I tend to be cautious about where I’m willing to draw hard lines. So many areas of concern require judgment calls by individuals, and people often draw the line in different places. However, chat rooms are one of those areas where I fail to see any positive value, and often see a great deal of risk. As a consequence, I strongly recommend that you do not use chat rooms. The FBI estimates that regularly frequenting chat rooms yields a very high chance of interacting with an online predator.17 A sobering statistic indeed!
Chat rooms can take many forms, but the rule of thumb is that any environment online that allows your child to converse with someone they don’t already know in the real world should be considered very risky, and avoided if at all possible. There are environments that are otherwise safe and wholesome, or where there is some legitimate reason for your child to be hanging out. However, you should make sure to educate your children properly so that they can respond appropriately to any interactions with potential online predators.
Here’s a true story from my family that may help to illustrate these principles in action. One of my boys is a really good chess player,18 and he has spent time on a very popular, very reputable online chess service where players from around the world play chess. When high quality competition isn’t locally available (like in our little town in Utah), a service like this can be extremely valuable, especially for a youngster like my son, who took his chess very seriously. On one occasion he told me that during a chess match online, the other player began asking him questions, such as his age, gender, and where he lived. I asked him what he did in response. He told me that he immediately quit that game, blocked the player from having any contact with him (including that player’s ability to see any of my son’s games), and then reported the player to the system administrators, who, to their credit, responded immediately to the situation. Since my son understood the risks ahead of time, he was able to quickly respond to inappropriate advances, before getting to the point of trying to determine whether the other player was a predator, or just a very nosy and socially clueless online chess player.
While an online chess service isn’t a chat room in the classic sense, the point is that the ability to converse online with a stranger means that all the normal cautions associated with chat rooms apply. When a chat room or chatting service exists whose sole purpose is to help people talk (unlike the chess service where chatting was a side note) the dangers increase exponentially.
Chatrooms allow for immediate, direct communications between participants, and many of those geared to adolescents are known for explicit sexual talk, sexual innuendo, and obscene language. This atmosphere may attract online child molesters. Also, the youths who visit chatrooms may be more at risk than other youths. There is some evidence that adolescents who visit chatrooms are more likely to have problems with their parents, to suffer from sadness, loneliness, or depression, to have histories of sexual abuse, and to engage in risky behavior than those who do not go to chatrooms.19
Finally, be very wary of video chat. Directed video chat services such as Skype or Google Hangouts are valuable ways of communicating remotely with people we already know. But beware of video chat services, such as Chatroulette, that exist strictly to create video connectivity between perfect strangers. The opportunity for abuse is obvious, as are the dangers.