ChatRoulette: Have You Heard About the Lonesome Loser?

BlogHer Original Post

Having made my way onto the Internet in 1996, I remember the chat rooms of yester year. A place you could visit and encounter wonderfully interesting people or lonesome losers. One never really knew who would show up, but if the room got too crazy, you could pop out at any time and leave.  No harm, no foul.

Businessman using computer,focus on web cam in foreground

I myself was a chat host, known far and wide as PSWN OyVey, on what was then the premier parenting site, "Parent Soup."  It was my job to deal with The Crazy  and block inappropriate visitors from the chats whenever I deemed it necessary.  And frankly, I didn't have to ban anyone all that often. Usually the interloper was a teenager, and a private instant message from me claiming, "Hey, you're interrupting my chat. I know your family. So you might want to leave now. ; )" was all it took for the unsuspecting and Internet un-savvy teen to figure out they should exit stage left.  Before departure, nine times out of 10, the trollish teen would send an IM back to me, "Thank you, sorry!"  Seriously, it cracked me up every time.

Most kids entering chat rooms were just bored and looking for entertainment. Stirring up shit in a chatroom provided them with something to do, and it filled up their fun-o-meter. Kids who are online these days aren't much different than their predecessors from over a decade ago. They still get bored, still want to find the funny in life and they still want to put one over on their parents. So it's no wonder the idea of ChatRoulette was developed by a 17-year-old, and ChatRoulette appeals to teens and young adults.

If you haven't heard of it, Kirida has a great piece about ChatRoulette posted in the Family Connections forum, where parents are weighing in on what they think of their kids participating in what has been oft compared to a "video chat room" or even meeting a stranger on a bus.

But as Therapy Doc points out, there may be a big difference between ChatRoulette and what is known as a typical chance encounter:

"But ChatRoulette is different. It's about face-face, body-body social interaction with no pre-interview survey, by camera, any time of day, with a random individual, someone online at the same time, in the same room, or rectangle. You walk into a different random social interaction, not unlike sitting in the waiting room to see your medical doctor. Wait a minute. It's very unlike meeting a random stranger at the doctor's. In the waiting room, the likelihood is that both of you are fully clothed."

Here is my opinion, for what it's worth. Don't hit the panic button before you check it out yourself and then talk to your kid. And by checking it out, I'm not suggesting you sign up for ChatRoulette and subject yourself to spinning the wheel and landing on Mo the Masturbator, because it seems like you've got about a 40 percent chance of hitting that particular jackpot. What I am recommending is you either try it once yourself, or if you aren't feeling lucky, read up on it so you can talk with your kids about any concerns or objections you may have. If you feel it is something you might be willing to "legalize and regulate," it will be helpful when explaining which parts of the game you find okay and which parts are verboten if you have some firsthand knowledge on which you are basing your rules of engagement.

For example, maybe you are fine with your older college kid playing on their computer but not on yours. Or possibly you would be okay with your high-schooler checking it out with you sitting by her side, but you don't want her trying it at a friend's house sans parental supervision.

Go check out Vanessa's post over at Radical Parenting, in which she outlines Five Things Parents Should Know About ChatRoulette, then read through the five things, noting your own perspective on each and what you want to bring up and address when you speak with your child.

"Glamorizing Strangers" might be a platform to springboard discussion between parent and child in regard to how some folks are cautious when they meet new people in person but aren't as cautious about meeting new people online.

As I've said before, online safety is just like talking about sex; it's an ongoing conversation over a span of years, not just The Talk you have one afternoon when you catch your kid Googling "Naked People."

Danah over at Apophenia, like me, remembers the Internet chatrooms. She brings up a point I agree with: We need to stop perpetuating the myth of the dangerous stranger (particularly when it is well documented that children are often victimized by folks known to them or their family). She writes:

"But I used to love the randomness of the Internet. I can’t tell you how formative it was for me to grow up talking to all sorts of random people online. So I feel pretty depressed every time I watch people flip out about the dangers of talking to strangers. Strangers helped me become who I was. Strangers taught me about a different world than what I knew in my small town. Strangers allowed me to see from a different perspective. Strangers introduced me to academia, gender theory, Ivy League colleges, the politics of war, etc. So I hate how we vilify all strangers as inherently bad. Did I meet some sketchballs on the Internet when I was a teen? DEFINITELY. They were weird; I moved on."

Whether or not you decide to take a dip into this particular online video chat casino game, I think we can agree parenting often feels like a roll of the dice, a total gamble at times. And like Kenny Rogers tells us, the secret to survivin' is knowin' what to throw away and knowing what to keep.

What are the odds other parents are wondering about ChatRoulette too? Come join the discussion in Family Connections!

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