This past week an elementary student traveling on a school bus used a smartphone’s web browser to visit OmeTV (Omegle). This video chatting platform randomly connects users in one-on-one chat sessions where they chat anonymously. In this circumstance, the child was connected randomly to a man who proceeded to expose himself.
By encouraging people to “Talk to Strangers,” these video chatting apps are built on a principle that is in opposition to fundamental lessons parents teach their children about safe behavior. While OmeTV states that participants must be of a certain age to use and access portions of the site that are unmoderated, a user simply has to use fictitious information to gain access to an environment with highly inappropriate content. The very thing that happened in the case here last week.
The site used this week is just one of many video chat apps/sites that children and teens use daily. A quick dive into the topic revealed that many of the more common apps that parents are “familiar” with, pose hazards and exposure to predators not initially apparent. I came across this graphic produced by the Sarasota County Sherrif’s Office that briefly describes some of the most potentially dangerous apps:
While I have observed my teenage daughter and her friends innocently using apps like TikTok, Snapchat and others, many of the apps lend themselves to prowling by predators and trolling that can lead to cyberbullying. Without exaggeration school administrators and teachers deal with the fallout created on social media every day.
Parents are urged to take some time to review rules for phone access. Principals report that they engage in many conversations with parents and caregivers in which it is acknowledged that children and adolescents are allowed access to their phones all night. Not only does this negatively impact the sleep needs of children and adolescents, but it also creates a virtual 24/7 connectedness that is not healthy.
Parents are urged to take some time to review what apps are loaded on phones and become familiar with their purpose. This not only allows for an understanding of the app’s purpose, but it also can help identify insidious secret apps like Calculator% (see image above).
Parents are also encouraged to investigate parent control apps that are commercially available. These tools bring a level of control back to adults in the interests of enhancing the health, safety, and security of children and adolescents.
Lastly, parents are encouraged to ask questions. Administrators in our schools would be happy to talk with you, and our School Resource Officers work collaboratively with administrators, and have also been provided specific law enforcement focused training about social media issues.
I can personally attest to the difficulties, frustrations, and inconvenience of having to spend a great deal of time trying to keep abreast of the latest changes to the social media ecosystem, and having to regularly battle with my teenagers over screen time. It would certainly be easier to look the other way or assume that everything was okay because, after all, kids are so tech-savvy that they know what is correct and how to protect themselves. The truth is, vigilance, and a commitment on the part of parents and caregivers is essential in our efforts to keep children and adolescents safe.