Streaming platforms, online chat rooms, and various other forms of social media have ushered in a new wave of risk that young kids and parents should appreciate.
By: Marty Dolan and George King—Dolan Law, P.C.
Popular online streamer and entertainer Kai Cenat is facing charges for inciting a riot and unlawful assembly after tens of thousands of teens gathered and flooded Union Square in New York City on August 4, 2023. The preplanned fan meetup quickly turned into a riot with people jumping on cars, harassing tourists, and causing chaos in the heart of Manhattan. Police reports indicate that injuries included people left the scene with their “heads split open…cuts, bruises, [and] lacerations.” New York Police opined that social media can be dangerous if not properly focused: “[there is a] power [to] social media, [a] danger [to] social media. We went from 300 kids to a couple of thousand kids in minutes. We have to be responsible when we use this tool.”
Why Kids Rely On Online Communication
The Cenat story is a microcosm of a larger plight facing a generation of young kids: online streaming services, chatrooms, and various forms of social media can have many consequences if left unchecked. Young kids face the dichotomy that is the desire for connection and a world that increasingly prioritizes social media. There has been a seven percent increase in young people flocking to online communications since 2019. The increase in use can be largely attributed to the pandemic: “screen use among teens increased by 17 percent from 2019 to 2021…on average, daily screen use went up among tweens (ages 8 to 12) to five hours and 33 minutes from four hours and 44 minutes, and to eight hours and 39 minutes from seven hours and 22 minutes for teens (ages 13 to 18).” Apps like Tinder, Omegle, and Chatroulette are becoming increasingly popular among youths in light of these trends. Undoubtedly, these apps served a valuable purpose during the COVID-19 lockdowns; however, in the aftermath of such prevalent use, kids and parents must know how to safely navigate them. Even mainstream apps like Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter can lead to serious consequences if not monitored. It is of paramount importance for not only kids but also parents to know how to stay safe online.
What Kids Are Communicating On
It’s important to know what apps your child uses and who they interact with on such apps. In order to understand the dangers of online interactions, the popular chat site “Omegle” offers important insights. Omegle is a platform that allows people to connect to a chat room with a random stranger. The chat room launched in 2009 and gained popularity quickly but saw the apogee of its popularity when the pandemic hit. Teens have been rediscovering the platform; there are roughly 140,000 active Omegle users every hour. To communicate, a user enters a virtual queue and waits for the site to connect you to a random user. Then, it creates a chatroom just for you and the stranger, where you can text chat, video chat, or both. While Omegle’s terms of service require users to be 18, the website does not require verification of age or personal information in order to use the app. Unfortunately, the chat room’s terms of service include a general release of liability, and users cannot hold it liable for violations and a general lack of safeguards for user safety. The list of legal implications that follow from this model is plentiful. First, the anonymous nature of these chat rooms can breed a plethora of child predators. These predators know Omegle does not require age or identity verification. In these chat rooms, “flashing” is common. There are thousands of adult videos of Omegle users just baring themselves to random strangers.
The legal consequences of these apps are murky. Federal law does not criminalize such conduct. However, some laws in Illinois criminalize such conduct. Chicago Municipal Code 8-4-127 defines the issue: “‘Cyber-flashing’ means to knowingly and without lawful justification send an intimate image to another person through the use of data-dropping technology without the request or express consent of the person.” Furthermore, identity theft is a real issue. Despite the anonymity, simply exchanging names can lead to serious consequences—parents and children can have indent theft happen simply from the predator learning information in these chat rooms. Cyberbullying can also be a consequence of social media apps. This is particularly common on more mainstream apps like Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat.
Predators, like all forms of social media, lure kids into potentially adult and explicit content that compromises the child; this dangerous territory lends itself to allowing a predator to blackmail the child. Illinois laws are vague on this issue: the predator may find some leverage on the victim and then use that to extort nude photos or other adult content and innuendo. Blackmail is generally an element of “sextortion” cases; Illinois has no specific statute regarding sextortion. Instead, it falls under the exploitation of a child. If your child has experienced this, it’s important to contact a lawyer to assist you with the proper recourse. More importantly, it is important to talk to your child to prevent a crime before it takes place.
Who Kids Are Communicating With
The problem with many online platforms is that kids don’t know who they communicate with. The randomized chat feature means kids often do not know who they’re talking to until they’re already paired in a chat room. Still, Omegle has a scary feature that allows third parties to access the supposedly “private” chat room. There is a “spy” mode and Omegle’s video and text chat feature, which involves a third-party user joining an already established chat room. However, rather than contribute, the third party or ‘spy’ suggests a topic that the users are expected to discuss. “Catfishing” is a common practice where predators pose as someone familiar to gain access to the child’s page or profile and then exploit that access.
How To Stay Safe: Kids And Parents
So, what can parents do to ensure their kids are safe online and not exploited? Solutions seem few and far between, but that does not mean they’re nonexistent. Dolan Law’s cybersecurity team of experts has put together a comprehensive list of steps parents – and kids – can use to stay safe online.
First, treat the internet and your activity like you’re going out in public. Our expert said, “in regard to children, this would be making them aware of the potential dangers that are out there, such as risks that could stem from talking to strangers or posting information online.” It is vital for a child to understand that when something is posted online, others will see it.
Privacy is hard to ensure online, but knowing what controls exist to protect one’s privacy could make all the difference. Parents should be aware of certain sites’ privacy options before allowing children to use said app or website. For example, if a child wants to have a social media account, a parent should subsequently familiarize themself with what privacy tools they can use to monitor their child. Children shouldn’t use the site or app if there is a lack of privacy controls. Suppose a parent allows their child to use Facebook or Instagram – in that case, they can set up privacy controls, such as keeping a profile private and accepting friends via invitation-only, ensuring the public can’t see the profile. Of course, a strong recommendation is to allow the parent access to the accounts to verify friends and family.
Similarly, monitoring can be done through software. There are apps and websites like “Disney Circle,” “FamiSafe,” and “Family Time” that allow a parent greater transparency to what a child does online – subsequently limiting liability and danger. By using any of these, a parent can monitor their child’s internet activity, whether on a desktop or mobile device. Parents can prevent access to inappropriate content and searches, set screen time limits, and block specific apps.
Parents can also set up an internet firewall. This would block links to websites you want to prohibit your kids from accessing. The first step is to access your router. The process depends on your router, but you can simply internet search your router model to figure out how to access the dashboard. Then, under settings, look for a website blocker. This may be found in the Security or Parental Control section. Finally, enter the link or URL you want to block (Omegle, Chatroulette, Instagram, etc.) and save the new settings.
Importantly, have regular conversations with your child or teen. Let them know how grave the risk is to unfettered internet activity. Perhaps you and your child can come up with a technology agreement—your child agrees to stay off certain websites and apps in exchange for more time online. Most importantly, do not allow your kids to interact with people they do not know or use anonymous chat rooms like Omegle.
The internet will undoubtedly continue to grow; there are always new ways of using it, for better or worse. Consequently, staying on top of the latest trends and security awareness is vital to ensure internet safety is always practiced, no matter the device being used. Dolan Law’s IT expert commented, “My sentiment on children and the internet is it should be a conditional relationship, and parents can show them how to use it appropriately. The internet can be a great tool and resource for educational purposes, which is great for a growing mind. Still, it can easily become a difficult subconscious habit to break as it also has endless forms of entertainment.” Parents should know it can be a great tool – for education, connection, fun, and more. But parents should also put a limit on entertainment purposes, such as social media, video platforms, and video games; this can result in healthier habits. After all, children should still be able to have some fun online.
Finally, contact a lawyer to understand your rights online if you are a victim; Dolan Law is a top-rated trial firm representing victims of wrongdoing and experienced in a wide variety of personal injury cases.
George King is a second-year law student at Belmont University College of Law in Nashville, TN. Prior to law school, George graduated Summa Cum Laude from Furman University. Currently, he works as a law clerk for Dolan Law in Chicago, IL.
Marty Dolan is the owner of Dolan Law, Chicago. He is a trial lawyer and has been so for over 30 years. Dolan Law handles catastrophic injury and wrongful death cases, including crime victim litigation. He is appointed to the Illinois Supreme Court Committee on Character and Fitness and The Illinois Supreme Court Rules Committee. He is a Clarendon Hills resident. See www.dolanlegal.com.