Children are easy targets, but knowing how to protect your child online can prevent lifelong emotional scars.
If you’re a parent of a child, tween or teen, you’re probably aware that internet use can result in some scary situations.
We hear unfortunate stories daily about sex trafficking or other situations that can happen because someone makes an online connection with your child. And even the most careful, loving parents can have children who fall prey to predators. In many instances, our kids are more internet-savvy than we are, chatting and using apps in ways we don’t even imagine—until it’s too late.
You’re probably aware of the more popular apps like Snapchat and Roblox and how strangers can connect with your child. There are many ways to “lock down” your child’s access to certain apps and sites, whether they’re using a shared device or their own. But even if you’re using an app that claims to strengthen parental control and alert you to problematic behavior online, nothing is fail-safe.
What’s the hottest site you’ve never heard of?
Omegle is a free website that’s designed to allow a user to video chat anonymously. It draws kids in by saying that they can meet “cool people” and have one-on-one chats. It’s sort of like chat roulette—you randomly “find” a stranger and have a conversation.
As you can imagine, this type of thing can go downhill fast. Sexual predators are known to use the site to gain access to unsuspecting children. Children think they are going to chat with other kids their age, but then they find themselves on camera facing someone who’s showing body parts they shouldn’t, saying inappropriate things, encouraging the child to show their body, or who otherwise just should not be chatting with an unknown child online. It’s that simple.
Although an Omegle user is required to be 18 years old, there’s no verification. Likewise, the “adults only” section remains unmonitored. It’s reported that Omegle’s greatest number of child users are middle school-age children.
Plaintiff “A.M.” filed a federal lawsuit in Oregon district court as a product liability case against Omegle, claiming it profits from procuring children for sexual predators. In this case, A.M. was an 11-year-old girl who was targeted by a predator in his 30s.
The lawsuit claims that “Omegle’s most regular and popular use is for live sexual activity, such as online masturbation. Omegle employs no mechanism to verify ages to prevent children from being matched with adults.” It goes on to say that Omegle is aware of its use by predators and encourages pairings between adults and children.
A.M. alleges that she was forced to take and send photos to the predator that included unclothed images and sexual acts. The predator used A.M. to recruit other children and threatened her that if she went to police or told anyone about their interactions, he would share the photos and videos and that she would get into trouble.
Omegle, which had more than 65 million visits in 2021, claims that although there are predators using the site, it’s the user’s responsibility to protect themself... even if they are 11 years old.
A.M.’s lawsuit claims she suffered and continues to suffer serious emotional pain and psychological distress as a result of Omegle’s role in facilitating her encounter with a stranger who then abused her for three years and forced her to recruit more victims. She has been diagnosed with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and has suffered seizures and panic attacks. She is triggered by certain words and sounds that include a ringing phone, and she continues to experience fear and anxiety when meeting new people.
The claim is that Omegle could have avoided this design defect by designing the site so that it did not match minors with adults.
At the time of this writing, the case is still pending in federal district court.
Product liability lawsuits
The lawsuit A.M. v. Omegle.com LLC is being brought as a product liability claim, which is a type of personal injury lawsuit.
Usually, we think of product liability lawsuits as involving items that can malfunction—like electrical appliances, vehicles, and other things that can cause an injury if a defect causes malfunctions.
But central to the lawsuit was whether a website is considered a product—and the court said yes. In this instance, the Omegle website is selling itself as a product, and it’s supported by on-site advertisers that often link to adult content.
A product liability lawsuit has to be based on an injury caused by either a manufacturing defect, design defect, or failure to warn.
A manufacturing defect could be something like a faulty electrical fuse that causes a user to be burned. That’s not the situation here. Omegle is being sued for a design defect; the plaintiff’s lawyers allege that the website was designed to allow adults to match with children, which would make it foreseeable and expected that abuse would happen. Although the site does “warn” on its homepage that there’s a possibility of adult content, critics argue that these warnings don’t go far enough to protect children on the site.
There should be age verification software and other monitoring so that children don’t fall prey to adults.
Protect your children online
The internet is a virtual minefield for parents.
Apps like Snapchat, Discord, TikTok, Instagram, Gas, BeReal, Yik Yak, Roblox, and others can easily open virtual doors to children that are hard to close.
Notice that Omegle isn’t on that list? That’s because it’s not an app, it’s a website. Any child with access to a web browser can reach the site with a few clicks.
As a parent, the best way to protect your children is to adjust privacy settings and parental controls on games, apps, social media, and on the device, itself. Most browsers allow you to set an age limit that restricts sites with adult content. How you do this depends on your device and settings, but here are a few tips to start:
- Limit use. Don’t allow your child unfettered access to screen time. Permit certain activities if you wish (for instance, they could play a specific game for 30 minutes after school), but then limit computer use to homework or necessary activities only.
- Supervise online browsing. We get it—we’re parents, too, and we understand that often the very reasonyour child is allowed to spend some time in front of a screen is because you need to get something done without interruption. Whether it’s your own work, making dinner, or just having a few moments of peace... you’re likely tempted to allow online time as a way to keep your child occupied for a while. You don’t need to stand over their shoulder and watch every click, but keep computer or device time in a central location. Your child is less likely to browse inappropriate content if they know you’re in the same room. Don’t allow children in rooms with closed doors on their devices; let them sit in a family area so you get occasional glances at their screens.
- Monitor their online activity. Yes, you might feel strongly about respecting your child’s privacy. But there’s a difference between privacy and unsafe behavior. As a parent, it’s your job to know what your child is doing online. Check their browser history to see what sites they visit, check message history to know who they’re talking to, and use your browser or internet service provider’s security tools and settings.
- Educate your child. Talk to your child in a way that’s age-appropriate about why online safety is important and how the internet could be unsafe. Let them know that they should never share their name, address, phone number, picture, school, etc. with any stranger (especially online)... and that they shouldn’t be talking with strangers online in the first place.
- Be your child’s “safe space”. Make your children aware that they can come to you for safe, judgment-free guidance if they get in over their heads—online or otherwise. And make it the truth. Let them know that if anything happens online that makes them uncomfortable or worried, you are there to help... not to punish or shame them, but to help.
Kids don’t have the same life experience, judgment, or self-control that most adults do. It’s our job to keep them safe. Just like you would fasten your child into a car seat when you drive, install a pool fence to prevent drowning, avoid common hazards in your home, and be wary of defective toys, you also want to have protections against online predators.