FB & Google+ videochat + kids: Should we worry?

Secretive Webcam chat by vulnerable youth has always been risky, but videochat with “real life” friends in everyday online hangouts is unlikely to be.

By Anne Collier

Based on old fears around online chat and Webcams, should all the news about videochat in Facebook and the new very social Google+ concern parents (when the latter goes public)? Not really. Not the sort of engaged parents who tend to be concerned, and definitely not those who approach these things from the kid out instead of from the technology or the headlines in (see this). In other words, it depends on the child – as we learned from the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, not all young people are equally at risk online; the kids at risk offline are those most at risk online; and a child’s psychosocial makeup and home and school environment are better predictors of online risk than any technology a child uses.

But we parents do need to be aware of Webcams when combined with the random, anonymous aspects of “traditional” chat – the characteristics of sites like Stickam.com, where anybody can show up any given moment and say or do anything on camera. These are not the conditions of Google+ and Facebook, where the interaction is largely based on “real life” identities, relationships, and social and professional circles. Chat has long been a favorite feature of Facebook for my teenage kids, who use it to hang out with their school friends and teammates when they can’t be with them in person, and the research bears this out. It’s not always totally innocuous, especially when somebody’s being mean or trying to create hurtful drama, but it’s mostly ok and just part of their social experiences (only more out in the open than ever before, which can be both good and bad).

What is worthy of our concern and attention is the volatile mix of Webcams, Web sites that promote random anonymous interaction, and vulnerable young people – those who are marginalized, self-destructive, or otherwise at risk. Several rare examples come to mind: Kiki Kannibal, who was recently profiled in Rolling Stone; 11-year-old “Jessi Slaughter,” whose father only fueled both her self-destructive behavior and the cruel online backlash she experienced; and Justin Berry, whose story – the US’s first high-profile case of a vulnerable child’s high-risk use of a Webcam – was told by New York Times investigative reporter Kurt Eichenwald back in 2005 (see my post).

Justin’s case was extraordinary, partly because he figured out how to keep his actions secret, but his at-risk profile at the start of it all wasn’t – that of a shy, marginalized boy at school, lonely, great with technology, divorced parents, a mom away at work a lot, and Webcams that would be hidden whenever she was around. At 13 he thought he’d use the Net to find friends. According to Eichenwald, Justin had no idea when he first went into a videochat room that it was all about meeting for sex. A man asked him to chat in his underwear, offering money but with “nice” grooming style (see this about grooming) and the tragedy unfolded from there until, after a few years and after being persuaded to go out of state and being abused in person, he turned a corner and started exploiting the demographic that had exploited him, with his father even getting involved in the “business” at some point. Berry finally “met” Eichenwald in a chatroom and started giving him info because he hated the lifestyle that had taken over his life and that he’d tried to escape at least a couple of times.

“When mental health is low (including depression, self-injury, eating disorders), when family dynamics are questionable, or when youth are psychologically tormented in everyday life and they’re going into more esoteric online spaces, then we should really start worrying,” danah boyd wrote to a group of risk-prevention specialists recently. It’s when these kids are using some of the numberless video chat services online as well as Google+ Hangouts or Facebook videochat that parents need to be paying close attention, she adds. And those obscure sites change all the time; they won’t show up in news stories because reporters in mainstream news sites are very unlikely to know about them.

“When I ask at-risk teens who participate in chatrooms what chatrooms they’re on, they never refer to the same ones,” boyd continues. “It’s a total scattershot. And those teens who are seeking attention go from site to site looking for someone who will pay attention to them. That’s not a typical pattern for most teens. But you can’t get at this issue by focusing on the site; you need to focus on the at-risk teens.”

So I’m not worried about most kids using videochat in Facebook or Google+ (when the latter becomes available to the general public) – just the vulnerable ones without informed parents whom we all need to be thinking about. Sure, kids can be impulsive and make mistakes (like us adults – see the second bullet below), but that’s why we keep the lines of parent-child communication open and together work to stay mindful about the consequences of impulsive actions in instantly replicable digital media. It’s why we work from the kid out and focus on loving our children instead of fearing the technology they use.

Related links

* In fact, Hector’s World, New Zealand’s Net citizenship and safety virtual word for the littlest Net users, recommends covering Webcams for them – primarily to teach mindful use of this technology. See the “background discussion document” linked to on this page at Hector’s World
* Adults need to be just as alert to the consequences of keeping Webcams on and “hangouts” open – see an account of a friend’s risky mistake in my ConnectSafely co-director Larry Magid’s piece on “Google+ & Facebook: Different Approaches to Video Chat” in the Huffington Post. [At SafeKids.com, he has a how-to with screenshots of FB’s videochat feature, which simply adds video to existing one-on-one chat.]
* “Understanding cyberbullying from the inside out”
* “Videochatting kids spied on via their Webcams”
* “A child’s self-destructive behavior: Test for ‘digital citizenship'”
* “The new, social Google+”

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