Chatroulette shines Webcam where kids shouldn't look

A Russian-based video chat service is getting increasingly popular, but it should be off limits to kids. Some users are focusing their Webcams on their private parts.

Make sure there are no kids in the room if you plan on trying out the Chatroulette video chat service. While I was able to have a couple of very nice conversations with fully clothed polite individuals, I saw some things I would rather have avoided as I tested this relatively new service.

When you first enter the site you'll see two large black boxes and a blank area for text chat. As soon as you click "play," you'll see a stranger's picture in the top box and--at least on my machine--a notice asking if you wish to allow the site to access your video camera. If you click "allow," you'll see your picture in the bottom box.

Larry chats with unidentified stranger (face blurred out to protect privacy) Larry Magid via Chatroulette

And that's where the fun--or nausea--starts. If you don't strike up an immediate conversation with the first person you see, you can press Next to go to the next person--kind of like spinning a roulette wheel. In my case, mostly what I saw were the heads of young men and as soon as they saw me, they apparently clicked Next because they were gone in a second. I saw a couple of young women who also quickly dismissed me as a candidate for a video chat.

On a couple of occasions, I saw people who hung around long enough to start a conversation either through the Webcam microphone or by text chat. One was an advertising copy writer from Toulouse, France. The other was a college student from Sao Paulo, Brazil. In both cases they were doing the same thing I was--checking out the technology and grateful to have an intelligent discussion with someone equally curious about Chatroulette.

Images you might not want to see
Unfortunately, I also saw some things that I didn't find particular appealing, including a few men who were touching themselves while the camera focused on their genitals. I didn't hang around long enough to start up a conversation. There is only so far I'm willing to go in pursuit of a story.

The site, according to an article in The New York Times, is operated by a 17-year-old high school student in Moscow. "I created this project for fun. Initially, I had no business goals with it," site creator Andrey Ternovskiy told Times writer Brad Stone in an e-mail interview.

There is nothing new about chat and, actually, nothing new about video chat. Back in the 1990s there was a service called CUCME (as in "see you see me") that let you strike up a video chat with strangers. I remember trying it when I got my first PC video camera and encountering a topless female on one of my first forays. I got out of that immediately, not knowing her intentions or, for that matter, her age. Had she been under 18, I might have been inadvertently been breaking the law had I stayed for a chat.

Parents beware
Parents need to be aware that this service is out there and getting increasingly popular. Not only is it not appropriate for children to see some of the images I saw when testing the service, it's clearly not appropriate for kids to be showing themselves--even if fully clothed--to strangers via a video chat.

There was a time when I advised parents to avoid letting their kids use a computer with a Webcam, but many computers, including most laptops, now have them built-in. If you are concerned, about your kids' use of a Webcam, you might want to contact the PC maker to find out how to disable it. On a Windows machine, you can open up the device manager, click on Imaging devices, right click on the line for your integrated camera and select disable--do not select uninstall unless you want to completely remove the software that operates the camera.

If you have a parental control filtering program you can also block Chatroulette.com but, for most families, your first line of defense should be to talk with your kids.

Jeff Dess, an Atlanta-based prevention specialist with Cobb County Schools and author of Turn Up The Music: Prevention Strategies To Help Parents Through The Rap, Rock, Pop And Metal Years, has seen cases of elementary and middle school kids using Chatroulette and similar video chat rooms. He warns parents that sites like these are inappropriate for children because "you don't know who you're chatting with and there is no supervision." Unlike most social-networking sites, there is no requirement to sign in and there are no profiles. You just go to the site and start your video chat.

Dess said that a conversation is more effective than a technological solution. "The message I share with parents is that it's fine if their elementary or middle school kids use a supervised chat room with three or four of their friends, but I wouldn't allow kids to go into unsupervised chat room to chat with people they don't know."

Dess recommends you have a discussion with your child even if you're not aware if he or she has used a site like Chatroulette. You could start with an opening comment like "I've heard about kids going into video chat rooms to interact with people they don't know. Have you heard about this? What do you think about it?" If the child says they have used or know of such a site, it might be a good time to talk about an appropriate code of conduct. If they're oblivious to it, said Dess, "you can just drop the subject." For the time being at least.

The site has a disclaimer saying it's for users older than 16, but unlike most sites with age restrictions, it doesn't ask users to enter a date of birth.

The site was operating when I checked it this morning, but this afternoon it displayed the message "Chatroulette is currently undergoing technical maintenance. We will be back shortly."

About the author

Larry Magid is a technology journalist and an Internet safety advocate. He's been writing and speaking about Internet safety since he wrote Internet safety guide "Child Safety on the Information Highway" in 1994. He is co-director of ConnectSafely.org, founder of SafeKids.com and SafeTeens.com, and a board member of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Larry's technology analysis and commentary can be heard on CBS News and CBS affiliates, and read on CBSNews.com. He also writes a personal-tech column for the San Jose Mercury News. You can e-mail Larry.

 

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