Omegle is an app that kids used to talk to strangers and as was sadly illustrated by a terrifying incident in Minnesota this week, a way that sexual predators find and meet up with teen and tween victims.
Parents think that it won't happen to their kid, but chances are the parents of the 13 year-old girls who were kidnapped and sexually assaulted this week by someone they met on Omegle probably thought that, too.
The facts in the Minnesota case are a jarring wake up call.
KMSP reports that Casey Lee Chinn, 23 year-old man, is charged with 6 counts of criminal sexual conduct, kidnapping and solicitation after two 13 year-old girls were found crying behind a couch in a basement. He allegedly met them and exchanged sexual messages with them on Omegle.
While I've long suspected and occasionally joked that these internet creeps live in their parents basement, the girls were found in the basement of the home that Chinn lives in with her his parents.
Worse yet, KMSP also says that Chinn is a high school volleyball and baseball coach.
There's a lot parents need to know about Omegle, but these items stand out:
2. "Don't get pervy!" is another statement that used to be posted on the Omegle homepage. Now it says "keep it clean and friendly" and "Understand that human behavior is fundamentally uncontrollable, that the people you encounter on Omegle may not behave appropriately, and that they are solely responsible for their own behavior. Use Omegle at your own peril."
Let that sink in: tweens and teens are flocking in droves to a site that says "use at your own peril."
That tell you two things: 1) there's a problem, and 2) you want to keep your kids far, far away.
Please, learn from this horrifying story about two victimized girls in Minnesota. Their age makes it likely that they are in either 7th or 8th grade. Sexual predators targeting young girls can happen anywhere, to anyone. And that's not just because of this incident. Omegle has been involved in pervy criminal cases in Wisconsin, California and Washington.
Parents need to talk with their kids. The Omegle app is just one of a number of bad apps, and there's a new one every day. It is impossible to close them off in a bubble of a world where there are no pervy people, so we need to help them learn to avoid them and tell them over and over again that you have their back and will do anything to help them.
When talking with your kids, here are some important point to cover:
* Make your kids aware of the reality.
Share this awful story with them so they know that these bad stories are real and that they need to take them seriously. While you don't want to terrify them, you want them to know that safety on the internet is serious business. If they are permitted to use the internet, smartphones, etc., that privilege includes the responsibility that they take steps to protect themselves and stay safe.
* Lay some ground rules and explicitly state your expectations.
Staying safe online means only interacting with people you know in real life, not sharing personal information like phone number and address, not sharing pictures that are not privacy protected (and yes, that includes your profile photo), keeping private parts and info private. Let your kids know what's acceptable.
* Keep reminding kids that they can come to you.
If they see something on an app or elsewhere that makes them uncomfortable, let them know that you will help them, no matter what's going on. I love the advice from Whitney Flemming of Playdates on Friday to treat online behavior "like drinking and driving — there is no instance about social media where they should be scared to tell you what they have done or contact you to help get them out of trouble."
These conversations aren't easy, and talking about the sexual assault of children the same age as your sons and daughters is undoubtedly hard. But I firmly believe that children hear what we say more than once. Our voices stick with them, somewhere deep down. If you aren't talking, though, the kids aren't hearing your voice and knowing how you feel about these apps or that you're there to help if they need it.
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