Mary Beth Sallee
Reporter, Hart Co. News-Herald
For years, parents have told their children not to talk to strangers, but what if that stranger was already inside your home?
Omegle is a website that was developed in 2009 for adults, but quickly gained momentum among all ages during the pandemic. It was specifically designed to allow users to virtually chat with strangers. These users communicate anonymously with one another from around the world via the Omegle chat function or video calling.
Although users can list their interests and be paired with people who have similar interests, Omegle is considered a “chat-roulette” style site, meaning a person does not know who he or she will be chatting with or where they are from. In fact, the website’s slogan is: “Talk to strangers!”
Omegle can be accessed via an app on a phone or tablet or on a regular web page via a computer. Although the site states that users should be 18 years old and verification boxes must be checked, nowhere does the site actually require a person to verify his or her age. Therefore, age restriction is not implemented, and adults can interact with children.
Additionally, Omegle does not implement registration. There are no accounts or user names, so users can remain completely anonymous and are simply identified as “you” and “stranger” during chats. Once a chat is closed, that chat cannot be accessed again. However, before closing the Omegle chat, users can choose to continue the conversation outside of Omegle by voluntarily sharing their names, ages, phone numbers, locations, and social media accounts like Snap Chat and Instagram.
“When you use Omegle, you are paired randomly with another person to talk one-on-one,” the website states. “If you prefer, you can add your interests and you’ll be randomly paired with someone who selected some of the same interests…Omegle video chat is moderated, but no moderation is perfect. Users are solely responsible for their behavior while using Omegle.”
Despite the site stating that video chat is “moderated”, adult content is highly prevalent on Omegle. This includes adult language and pornographic content. Users have no control over what they may see or hear when matched or connected with a stranger. Some individuals use Omegle with the sole intent of engaging in sexually explicit conversations or even video sex acts, including with children.
In February of this year, 26-year-old Alexander Young of Louisville was arrested after arranging a sexual encounter with who he believed to be a 15-year-old girl he met on Omegle. The girl, however, was actually an undercover detective. Young was arrested at a convenience store where he had agreed to meet with who he thought was the teenage girl.
For those who have never heard of Omegle or for those who believe it isn’t a local concern, think again.
A mother recently contacted the Hart County News-Herald about her son who had unknowingly been using Omegle. She wanted to share her story in hopes that other parents would become aware of the website. The mother requested to remain anonymous in order to protect her son’s identity. Therefore, she will be referred to in this article as Jane Smith.
Last week marked one of the most difficult moments in Smith’s life as a mother. She noticed that her son’s behavior had begun to change. Concerned, she checked the history on his phone.
That’s when she discovered that he had been on the website Omegle.
“I’m not sure how he discovered the website, but he found it in March 2023. He had been on there for at least two weeks by the time I knew about it,” Smith said. “We have tech restrictions enabled, but this website isn’t one that gets filtered.”
Smith explained that her son connected with many different people on Omegle, but the website does not keep a log of who he chatted with.
“There is no profile or friends list. There is no way of knowing whether he was speaking to a child or an adult,” Smith said. “I believe that some of the things that he said to me come from an adult. I just have no way to prove it.”
According to Smith, the “strangers” convinced her son that he was someone else entirely and was being emotionally abused.
“It has been hell,” Smith said. “…He is having a mental crisis and is now at an inpatient facility for help. These people were able to convince him that his life was awful, his family didn’t love him, and that he needed to run away from home.”
Smith isn’t sure how her son was introduced to Omegle, but said many sites and apps like these are so easily accessible.
“I had heard of websites like this on a tech group I’m in, but I did not know that it was easily accessible for children,” Smith said. “… I’m sure if you Google ‘chat with strangers’, it would probably come up. I talked to a few people, and their kids have also come across it, along with some spouses.”
Smith said she hopes that by coming forward, she can help make other parents aware of the online dangers that children can encounter.
In addition to Omegle, there are many other apps and websites that can also expose children to a variety of dangers from bullying to sexually explicit content. These include Snap Chat, Kik, Whisper, Discord, Yubo, MeetMe, and House Party.
To protect children from online dangers, parents can be proactive in safeguarding what their children have access to.
- Approve every app on your child’s phone or tablet.
- Check privacy settings on all of your child’s devices.
- Talk about phone use, apps, and social media with your children.
- Find out what apps and websites are popular in your region and in your child’s school and peer groups. Different apps and sites may become more popular in different locations.
- Parents should also be aware of gaming apps. They can have games with custom-made content created by others. Gaming apps may have features such as chat where children can talk with strangers of all ages. Therefore, it is important for parents to set up parental control settings. Always know what games your children are playing.
- Remember that children know more than realized and also often repeat the actions of others. As parents, it is important to set a good example. Don’t use apps or websites that you wouldn’t want your children to use.
In a day and age when technology is so easily accessible for everyone, it’s very important to stay vigilant. Much like the physical world, the digital world is also full of potential dangers. Therefore, the concern to keep kids from harm should also be applied to the online world as well.
Remember: strangers are all around. Make sure there isn’t one in your home.