The safeguarding risks in platforms designed for young people to meet strangers
29 January 2020Safeguarding 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 Omegle, Holla!, Yubo and Monkey 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
The team in eSafe’s InsightLab makes it their business to understand all the latest apps, websites and behaviours trending amongst young people.
Other anonymous chat apps that are currently gaining popularity include:
Chatible a Facebook Messenger “bot” that allows users to chat with someone at random
Tick Chat allows users to chat with people in the same area anonymously.
Turtle lets users message people and remain anonymous for three days.
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.
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.
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