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Omegle is a text and video chat site enabling visitors to chat to strangers. How does it work and is it safe for kids?
Written by Cyber Expert:
First launched in 2009, Omegle is a free online chat website that has recently seen a resurgence in popularity, largely due to the COVID-19 global pandemic and the need for users who feel alienated by remote work and learning conditions to find human connection in a socially distanced way. The site's tagline is 'Talk to strangers!' and that's exactly what visitors to the site are doing when randomly paired with a complete stranger to text or video chat anonymously. The premise alone raises many red flags, so how does Omegle work and is it safe for children? Keep reading to find out more.
Omegle is completely free and as simple to use as opening the website and clicking on 'text' or 'video' to start a chat anonymously – no registration required. Although it doesn't have an app, the site is well configured for viewing on smaller mobile and tablet devices. Visitors have the option of adding their preferred interests to match with strangers who are more like-minded and can disconnect from the chat at any time. The top right-hand corner of the screen displays the current number of Omegle visitors in real-time.
Unless users are sharing a device, chats are generally one on one. The text chat brings up a message interface with the names 'you' and 'stranger' for anonymity, and the video chat displays a screen with dual webcams. Visitors with a verified student email address can use the 'College Student Chat' function, increasing the likelihood of chatting to other students of a similar age. 'Spy' mode enables a user to pose a question to two strangers and observe the resulting chat without active participation.
Although the site is intended for visitors looking for human connection with strangers, many of the 'matches' appear to be bots that will quickly disconnect from the chat after posting inappropriate auto-generated content with clickable links to external sites.
Although the Omegle’s Terms of Service Agreement stipulates that visitors must be over 18 or over 13 with parental permission to use the site, there is no age verification in place whatsoever. Put plainly, anyone of any age can gain access to Omegle's full and largely unmoderated features and functions.
As previously mentioned, and despite its suggested age requirements, Omegle can be accessed by anyone, including predators; however, its latest popularity resurgence has seen an increased number of younger users visiting the site, most of whom aren't there for the inappropriate adult content. With children recently spending more time online for schooling and social interaction, those looking for something new and exciting may find this to be an enticing alternative to the monotony of seeing the same faces on their screens for months on end.
Young visitors who haven't had a previous interest in Omegle may be drawn to the site through social media. Influencers unable to produce their usual content during lockdown have turned to Omegle, often filming themselves interacting with fans on the site and then uploading the video to their accounts. Popular influencer Zack Ford, went viral on TikTok when he posted a video (with 4.7 million views to date) of himself doing a scary makeover then popping up on the site to scare fans.
Omegle’s tagline ‘Talk to strangers!’ should be a clear indicator that the site is not safe for children to use. Visitors have no idea who they will be matched with, what the stranger’s intentions are, or whether they are safe. Unfortunately, user anonymity also makes the site extremely attractive to predators. Many create a fake persona, such as a child of a similar age, that they use to befriend and groom children to gain their trust, before sharing content that is more explicit, asking them to move to a different communication platform or even meet up in person.
The site is awash with highly inappropriate content regardless of which section users visit. Although Omegle claims to moderate video chats, it also states that its moderation is not perfect and that visitors are solely responsible for their own behavior. An investigation conducted by the BBC revealed that in one two-hour period, they were “connected at random with 12 masturbating men, eight naked males, and seven porn adverts.” Judging by the numerous online reports from Omegle visitors, this claim does not appear out of the ordinary. Aside from sexually explicit content, users state they have been exposed to extreme violence, suicide, and criminal activity while visiting the site.
Although visitors are anonymous (unless they choose to reveal their identity), users can record video chats or take screenshots, which can be used for sextortion and other forms of blackmail. Additionally, saved text transcripts can include IP addresses and other potentially identifiable information. Platforms like YouTube feature numerous videos showing how insecure Omegle is and how easy it is to obtain personal visitor details, including their name and location. There have also been reports of hackers obtaining personal details from Omegle’s servers that can be used for cyberstalking, fraud, phishing, doxing, extortion, and other criminal activities.
Omegle is not a safe or appropriate site for children to access. If you discover that your child is using Omegle or if they ask for permission to visit the site, it's important not to panic or overreact; however, it is also imperative that you talk to them calmly and honestly. You should discuss the many risks associated with accessing the site and explain to them why avoiding the site is important to help keep them safe online.
If your child has already accessed Omegle, there is a likelihood that they have viewed inappropriate content. Most children access Omegle out of curiosity, with no intention of viewing adult content; however, even a brief exposure can be traumatic. Ensure they know that they can talk to you about anything they have seen online that has made them feel uncomfortable or worried.
It is essential to have adequate parental controls in place to filter inappropriate content and block the site.
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