For years parents have encouraged their kids not to talk to strangers, but one website is now encouraging it.
Developed in 2009, Omegle is a video-chatting website that can be accessed on the computer, phone or tablet. The brand boasts that users can "Talk to strangers!" using video, chat, or both.
What is Omegle?
Omegle is a website that randomly pairs users —identified as "You" and "Stranger" — to chat using text or video.
"When you use Omegle, you are paired randomly with another person to talk one-on-one," the site states. "If you prefer, you can add your interests and you’ll be randomly paired with someone who selected some of the same interests."
Is Omegle kid friendly?
Omegle's terms of service state that users must be 18 or older to use the site, or 13 with parental permission and supervision.
"Omegle video chat is moderated, but no moderation is perfect," the terms of service state. "Users are solely responsible for their behavior while using Omegle."
Is Omegle safe?
Parenting educator Laura Linn Knight says no. In preparing for this interview, she tried out the website for herself.
"I went on in the evening and immediately was asked my gender and age," Knight told TODAY Parents. "And then very quickly asked questions that were indicative of the person wanting to engage in a sexually rooted conversation."
In an effort to learn more about the site and the people who use it, Knight told TODAY she was "very honest" and logged on.
"I described myself as myself. I said that I was a female 38 year old woman who had never used the site before. I said I was interested in learning more about the site and asked if I could ask some questions about what it was used for," Knight told TODAY.
Knight asked an anonymous stranger she was matched with, who did not identify themselves, why they use the site.
"Do most people use this site for online dating or just to make friends?" Knight asked.
The response she received was startling.
"Not gonna lie — people definitely use this site when they're horny or looking for fun," the anonymous user wrote.
Knight said her interaction "all happened so fast" and could be defined as predatory behavior a child does not recognize.
"As a grown up, I can hold a boundary with that person, but a child can feel very overwhelmed or naively answer those questions," she said.
A statement from Omegle founder Leif K-Brooks told TODAY that the website was created "to help people share broader and more diverse perspectives with others from around the world."
"Any inappropriate behavior that has occurred, while a very small percentage of the millions of daily interactions, is deeply disturbing and unacceptable," Brooks' statement read. "We have enhanced and strengthened Omegle’s moderation practices to help prevent inappropriate use of our technology."
In February 2021, a BBC investigation of the live chat website found evidence of children exposing themselves.
In an interview with BBC, Brooks said his site was moderated and that his team did block users who "appear to be under 13" and that he had expanded monitoring efforts in 2020.
"While perfection may not be possible, Omegle's moderation makes the site significantly cleaner, and has also generated reports that have led to the arrest and prosecution of numerous predators," he said.
Brooks also responded to the site's pornographic advertisements.
"Omegle isn't intended for prurient interests, and when adults visit Omegle with that intent, it makes sense to direct them somewhere more suitable," he told BBC.
Though Knight chose to utilize text, there is a video chatting option on Omegle.
"Things can appear on video very quickly before you have an opportunity to shield your child's eyes," she explained. "Even following the (age) guidelines. How fast can you shield them? You're talking to a stranger."
Why are children on Omegle?
The site grew in popularity during the coronavirus pandemic while children were isolated from friends. The company touted it was a "great way to meet new friends, even while practicing social distancing."
"According to new research collected by data analyst Semrush, Omegle grew globally from about 34 million visits a month in January 2020 to 65 million in January 2021," the BBC report said.
From an objective point of view, Knight can see why parents may have considered allowing their child to use the website during the pandemic.
"In a time when children were not able to have social experiences, then I could see how a parent who didn't know (what goes on) would say, 'Here is an opportunity for my child to make a connection with anyone in the world — kind of like a pen pal'," she explained.
Children may also have renewed interest in Omegle thanks to other social platforms like TikTok and Youtube.
"A lot of TikTok and YouTube influencers will make surprise cameos on this site," Knight said. "If (kids) have idols that they're following, they want to see if they can be (connected) with these people, and then they go on. Then there's no real moderation that's happening within the site."
Should kids use Omegle?
Corporal Kenneth Hibbert Jr., an officer in the community policing unit of Prince George County Police Department in Maryland, says no.
"It opens way too many doors to illegal crime, sex offenders talking to juveniles, sex trafficking of juveniles...Parents need to be aware of this website and the dangers that can come from it," Hibbert told TODAY.
"Even if it's sending pictures of the inside of your home, and opening that up to people who are wanting to rob your house or break into your home," he said. "Children don't know any better."
Added Knight, "Parents, please don't let your children use this site."