A 10 year old girl sits on her bed and on the desk behind her is a framed certificate clearly identifying her name, the school she attends and the city she lives in.
The girl innocently looks at her computer and responds to questions on the screen with no understanding that who she is talking to is clearly a stranger. “Do you play sport?”
“Yes, I play soccer and I dance.”
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
She is chatting online and is wearing only her swimmers, as it is a hot day.
What’s wrong with this picture? Mainly the fact that the girl has no idea who is on the other end of her internet connection. For example, she has no idea who I am, but I am looking into her bedroom watching her answer increasingly personal questions from hundreds of other anonymous viewers in the name of research.
Welcome to the world of “YouNow,” one of many online video chatrooms we parents need to be aware of. YouNow.com is a website self-professed to provide “the best way to broadcast live and get an audience to watch you”. At any given moment there are thousands of live video feeds, and watching them requires no registration, no age verification and no need for any identification of any sort.
Viewers communicate with the broadcaster through written comments. Broadcasts are organised under various categories sorted by a hashtag (#) with some of the most popular being #dance, #girls, #truthordare and #sleepclub. Broadcasters can earn “likes” from viewers and accumulate “fans”, while advancing in “levels” ultimately encourages or coerces children to do increasingly daring things to avoid losing the attention of their audience.
However, prohibited but commonly seen behaviours I witnessed include girls frequently flashing their breasts or underwear in response to viewers demands, threats, taunts and insults, swearing and underage drinking.
Whether YouNow’s lack of policing of their website is a deliberate choice by the developers or perhaps they would claim it’s the difficulty of supervising thousands of live streams simultaneously … I do not know? But what I do know and what is clear, is that their guidelines exist in theory alone.
What is also clear, is that many children are inviting the world anonymously into their bedrooms, naively sharing their identity, privacy and intimacy with strangers. YouNow also exists as a smartphone app, enabling children to broadcast from virtually anywhere and negating crucial parental supervision.
YouNow’s style of personal broadcasting represents a new kind of internet peril, and it is imperative that awareness among parents grows. Children need to be aware of the risks and to have clear guidelines for safe behaviour.
For a young child, in the safety of his/her own house and his/her own room, the adoration of strangers can hold strong allure and the unknown people at the other end of the internet might not seem real. But the risks being faced and the risks being taken are very real.
I hope that a serious or tragic event is not needed to trigger the much need scrutiny of this video chat site and many others like it. This, parents, is without doubt our worst nightmare!
Caroline Bleechmore, Cyber Safety Advocate