"Talk to Strangers:" Is the New Chat Craze Dangerous for Girls?

"Talk to strangers:" That's the tag line for Omegle, a website where girls can text chat with random people they've never met. Omegle and Chatroulette, which allows users to video chat with strangers, have become explosively popular with teen girls, and I've asked some girls I respect to weigh in on the new chat craze.

First, a bit on how these sites work: sign on to Omegle, click "text" and a message pops up that says, "You are now chatting with a random stranger. Say hi!" Chatting starts out relatively innocuous, though in the five times I tried, most "strangers" wanted to know if I was male or female, or told me if they were (they were all male). You, or your partner, can always disconnect at will.

Chatroulette works pretty much the same way, except instead of a text that pops up, it's a video. You allow the website to turn on your computer's camera, and you're off. You can easily switch to chat with another user by clicking "stop" or "next;" so can your partner. In the five times I tried as I was writing this, I got two masturbating men (with tight shots of their exposed genitals), two men's faces, and one man who texted "baby like China sex."

Did I mention a ton of teen girls frequent this site?

What Girls Say

Girls say the sites can be fun and entertaining. You can pretend you're famous or look for the celebs who supposedly use the sites, ask silly questions, or save random conversations to laugh about with your friends later. You can meet people in cool places, too. "I've made some really great friends through [Chatroulette], especially people from France." AW, 16, told me. It's been, she added, "110% beneficial to my French grade." Many girls go on Chatroulette in groups, adding to the fun factor.
All the girls I asked thought these websites could also be dangerous for girls. JS, 15, says Omegle is "greatly misused" by girls. "It teaches girls to hide behind their computers and say whatever they want."

Girls had a lot to say about the creeper factor on both sites. GK, 17, says, "Chatroulette has a fine line between funny and a good time to creepy and borderline pedophile. In my experience there were many guys that I encountered, mostly older by themselves or with a friend. The first thing they ask is if they can get anything, such as a girl to expose herself or something with no strings attached. This is entertainment for them and some girls think it's just as entertaining to go along with it."

On Omegle, says JS, "almost half the time you log onto the site, the first thing the stranger you get connected to says 'slutty?' Sometimes you disconnect and try again, but almost all the time my friends play along. They pretend to be a person they either wish they could be or someone demeaning, like a 'slut,' something they know guys like. It completely lowers your self-esteem as a person and makes you feel worthless. No one will act like themselves on these sites."

What I Think

I understand the appeal of both of Omegle and Chatroulette. That said, I worry that the sites further loosen the social rules about what you should and shouldn't say to another person - at the exact moment when young women are developing their communication skills. Unlike chatting with people you know, you really can say anything here, and there truly are no consequences. You can be cruel, or just unkind, or sexually explicit, and none of it really matters.

While it's fair to point out that you can have fun and keep it clean - no sexually transmitted infections, etc. - I'd bet chronic users might be picking up a different sort of nasty ailment: You get a little too accustomed to serving up your unfiltered thoughts. The easier it becomes to shoot from the hip on these sites, the easier it'll be to do it with people you know. Don't like a yucky convo on Omegle? Click "next." Not so much in real life, though.

This desensitization makes it easy not just to say anything, but do anything. Among the very few girls I spoke with for this blog, one told me she had met a guy on Chatroulette and sent him an explicit video of herself (and regretted it later). Which is the thing about Chatroulette and Omegle: when it gets sexual, you're sexting with a stranger, so it feels a whole lot easier to do.

In a recent blog about the website Formspring, I argued that Formspring took cyberbullying to a new level (and low) by making it appear consensual. These chat sites do something similar for sexting, making it "safer" because there's virtually no chance of a peer or relative finding out.

Chatroulette isn't all about sex, but there sure is a lot of it. When you log on and face a man's exposed genitals, it's like a porn reality show. In fact, the only difference between what you're seeing and a real porn film is production value, plus the fact that this one might talk back to you. Add that to the site's video game feel -- it actually refers to itself as a "game," and you can click "new game" to start to "play" - and you've got an experience in which users are totally desensitized to what they're seeing and doing.

Girls are hardly passive users. Many say that using Chatroulette in groups often results in girls daring each other to flash people on camera, or write or say sexual things. That, says GK, "is where it turns bad." Is this peer pressure 2.0? Nothing wrong with a little Truth or Dare, but the stakes seem a lot scarier here.

"Personally," wrote AF, 17, "I think [Chatroulette] is a little unsettling so I don't use it." Unsettling is indeed the word. When I used the sites, my heart rate increased uncomfortably; even though I knew I couldn't be "found," I still felt nervous about being seen. I also felt a surprising twinge of rejection and even hurt when people disconnected from me.

AF thinks these sites are okay as long as girls stay smart. She advises girls to remember that "people are probably going on with the intention of upsetting the other 'stranger'" and not to take anything you hear too seriously. "Keep in mind that it's in the spirit of fun. If [a girl] is confident and down to earth, she'll hopefully know to let any trolling remarks roll off her back - but if she has low self-esteem or is very sensitive, she may make a choice that may be bad."