The safeguarding risks in platforms designed for young people to meet strangers
29 January 2020
Safeguarding risks are present in the plethora of chat platforms that promise young people they will meet new people, make new friends and even spark romantic relationships. Below we’ve taken a closer look at six of these - but the list is much longer and forever changing. Apps are constantly being created and new trends emerging every day.
Some of these apps and websites connect users according to common interests and locations while others make a feature of the random nature of pairings and may feel like second nature to young people. Arguably, however, all fly directly in the face of the “stranger danger” philosophy and can expose young people to sexual predators, using fake accounts, posing as like-minded teenagers.
Many of these apps and websites stipulate minimum age criteria, yet their appeal extends to younger age groups and they’re easily accessed: age restrictions are bypassed with the click of a button and mature content is often waiting to be consumed. The live streaming nature of these platforms is of particular concern given its unpredictability and absence of censorship.
A snapshot of the possible dangers for young people using chat platforms
Chatting with ‘friends’ that are users intending to do them harm
Being encouraged, sometimes ‘tricked’, into taking their clothes off
Sharing and viewing inappropriate or mature content of a sexual nature
Being bullied or subject to abuse
Sharing private information about themselves, friends and family
Arranging to meet someone they’ve met online
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The team in eSafe’s InsightLab makes it their business to understand all the latest apps, websites and behaviours trending amongst young people.
Omegle (age-rated 17+ )
Omegle is a popular voice and video chat service that’s accessed online or via an app. Like the original Chatroulette, this platform randomly pairs users in one-on-one chat sessions that are kept anonymous, unless the user chooses to reveal their identity. Users can leave the current chat at any point by initiating another random connection.
When the ‘new chat’ button is clicked, the Omegle logo spins arounds, almost like a roulette wheel, reinforcing the randomised nature of the selection.
In ‘Spy Mode’, users have the option to be the spy and ask questions of two strangers, or to discuss a question with another stranger.
Video mode is either moderated (min age 13) or unmoderated, with the latter requiring a simple tick box age verification (18 years+) that’s easy for under-age users to bypass. When the user does this, there’s every likelihood of them encountering explicit video streams
“We have tested this site, posing as different people of different ages, and the level of depravity is shocking. When there is anonymity, anything goes…..There’s absolutely nothing good about Omegle and no good reason that any child or teen (or adult) should be using it.” Protect Young Eyes.
Yubo (age-rated 13+)
Formerly ‘Yellow’, Yubo has been dubbed as the “Tinder for teens”, allowing users to connect with strangers based on their location, by swiping right or left. (Like Tinder, the app only works if the location is enabled and users have to share their location to sign up). If there’s a match, they can exchange messages, photos, video chats and are automatically added as friends on Snapchat.
The minimum age is specified to be 13 and, once signed up, users are only connected with 13-17 year olds in their own age category. However, there is an 18+ version of this app and if an incorrect date of birth is input the user will be contacted by adults.
After facing criticism app-makers have attempted to make it safer, by introducing real-time interventions for inappropriate content on live streams and suspending or removing accounts of users who breach the community guidelines. So, for example, if a user is live-streaming themselves nude, they’ll get a real-time notification asking them to put their clothes back on. If they don’t they will have their profiles suspended or deleted.
While the NSPCC has cited this as good practice the very nature of this app means there is still a high risk of exposure of Yubo users to adult themes, and Protect Young Eyes warns parents “please keep your kids away from this app. There’s no reason for it”.
Holla! (age-rated 17+)
Registration for Holla! requires either a mobile number or connection to the user’s Facebook account and is conditional on accessing the user’s phone camera and microphone.
Users are then connected in live video chat sessions with random strangers who could be doing absolutely anything – including engaging in sexual activities. Users have the option to ‘swipe up’ to proceed to the next match and, after each session, are invited to rate their experience with a smiley face, a neutral face or an angry face.
Users can make in-app purchases to enable more chat time on the app and to refine their matches e.g. to specify gender.
“If sex traffickers and online predators described the perfect social media app, this would be it” Common Sense Media
Discord (age-rated 13+)
Discord was initially created for gamers – to talk while they’re playing games and to share tips and advice with other players in game-specific servers - but has evolved into a full social network, with a range of ways to interact with over 100 million users.
It helps young people develop friendships with other people with similar interests, from playing a game like Fortnite to collecting fossils or a favourite author, in public and private groups.
In public groups, users will often be communicating with people they don’t know, which comes with obvious safeguarding risks. In addition, language can be abusive, content can be explicit.
While young people can have a positive experience using Discord, there are safeguarding risks and the broad advice remains: parents and carers should be checking in and know who their child is chatting to, ensuring conversations are positive and appropriate. They should also explore the safety features with their child – including the “keep me safe” function which controls who users can talk to and what they can see.
“The problem is that any digital environment that promotes secrecy or privacy to its users is always going to have a lot of inappropriate content, if you’re looking for it. In this way, Discord struggles. Users intentionally create servers/groups in order to be private and at times, inappropriate with each other. NOTHING is moderated". Protect Young Eyes
Monkey (age-rated 12+)
Monkey is a chat app where users are randomly connected with people from around the world for an initial 10-second video chat. If both users in the conversation tap ‘time’ then the call will continue beyond 10 seconds. After the conversation, they can add each other to Snapchat or Instagram.
The creators of the app say they wanted to encourage genuine face-to-face conversations “instead of chasing brief and shallow social exchanges like collecting likes on Instagram.”
Yet whether 10 seconds is sufficient time for users to decide whether or not they like someone is questionable, and this time ‘pressure’ could result in users giving away more information than they would choose to if they had longer to think about it.
MovieStarPlanet (age-rated 8+)
MovieStarPlanet is a fantasy play-and-chat site that targets “fashionable tweens”, aged between 8 and 13 years. Users create their movie star avatar then explore a glamorous world of fashion, dating, movies and pets; collecting coins through a range of activities – from creating “looks” to collecting autographs. They can meet and talk to others in a chat room, go on a shopping spree, watch Youtube and play games.
Professionals, parents and children themselves voice concerns about the suitability of this platform for children and young teens, where chat is unfiltered and friendships non-selective.
"This fantasy website zeroes in on tweens' most basic fears and desires in a carefully crafted virtual world of movies, magazines, fashion, pets, and dating -- but, more than anything else, social status.... At one end, MovieStarPlanet is as innocent as a poll asking about the best thing about swimming pools, while at the other it's truly mystifying and somewhat disturbing. The stated minimum age of 8 is decidedly too young for full access to this clearly popular site". Common Sense Media