Cyber security experts like Susan McLean warn parents are trying too hard to be their child’s best friend and that it takes a combination of things, including making sure you are talking to your children about Omegle and sites like it.
Cyber security experts like Susan McLean warn parents are trying too hard to be their child’s best friend and that it takes a combination of things, including making sure you are talking to your children about Omegle and sites like it.

What happened when I posed as an underage girl online

It didn't take long for me to be asked if I was horny.

Over a number of text interactions and a few disturbing visits to the live sex video section (try explaining that to your workmates) of the website Omegle the conversations all took on a repetitive nature:

Them: Hi

Me: Hi

Them: M

Me: F

Them: Are you horny?

Frankly I would have happily stopped the conversation right there but in the name of journalism I persisted and repeatedly men, allegedly ranging in age from 15 to 19, who were not bothered that I was "11 nearly 12," wanted to know where I lived, if I was horny and did I want to talk on Snapchat.

A child uses free online chat website Omegle. Picture: AAP Image/Richard Walker
A child uses free online chat website Omegle. Picture: AAP Image/Richard Walker

When I was a kid "stranger danger" used to mean being cautious of strangers offering lollipops or a lift home from school. Now, as the mother of two small boys, I have to worry about predators entering my house through small screens. It takes seconds for children to watch pornographic content that can't be unseen, minutes for a paedophile to make contact with your child and months can go by before you realise your child is being groomed.

This is exactly what happened to the mother of one 9 year old in Australia last year who would often face-time her friends from her bedroom. It wasn't until six months later she discovered that her Year Four student had been groomed on Omegle by an older woman who was now Face-Timing her regularly.

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Mum found out when she walked into her daughter's bedroom to find her masturbating in front of a screen.

Omegle has been around for a while but is catching parents by surprise. A chat site that offers to "talk to strangers," it is well known among enforcement agencies and cyber security experts as a place predators go to groom children. So much so that it even warns users on its home page that "predators have been known to use Omegle, so please be careful."

For the last two years it has been the highest trafficked site in the eSafety Commissioner's eSafety Guide, where people can visit for information about dangerous sites and apps.

One teacher I spoke to said Omegle is well known in the school grounds but that most kids thought it was just a bit of fun. The problem of course arises when children find themselves entrapped into "sending nudes" or, as happens in a lot of cases, talked into taking their clothes off or masturbating and those images are then distributed on the dark web.

Stranger danger used to be about being wary of being approached on a street. Now the danger is online. Picture: istock
Stranger danger used to be about being wary of being approached on a street. Now the danger is online. Picture: istock

We know that parenting in the digital age is a completely different way of parenting. But when faced with the reality of needing to warn your pre-pubescent children about websites where extremes range from "are you horny" to live sex shows to paedophiles grooming children - a lot of parents just hope that their internet filters will do the job for them.

Cyber security experts like Susan McLean warn parents are trying too hard to be their child's best friend and that it takes a combination of things, including making sure you are talking to your children about Omegle and sites like it.

"If you are going to give a device to your child there is no excuse," she said.

"You need rules, boundaries and supervision at home, open and honest communication, tech solutions in terms of restrictions in devices and third party products - nothing is going to work on its own."

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It seems a poor arsenal. Screens are dominating our lives and are required devices for our primary school aged children. One mother I spoke to had a strict "no devices in the bedroom" policy - but it only took minutes for her 11-year-old daughter to hop on Omegle on her iPad in the living room where she was immediately asked if she was horny.

Screenshot shared on Twitter of an Omegle conversation. Picture: Supplied
Screenshot shared on Twitter of an Omegle conversation. Picture: Supplied

And that is the mild end of the scale. At the other end is the video of young girls aged 13 or 14, captured on Omegle, where the girls showed their breasts, buttocks and then genitalia and then appeared to masturbate. That video footage was turned into seven images, distributed online, where the girls' faces were visible as was an item of clothing that identified a local sporting club.

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With all the tools we now have at our disposal what we don't yet have is technology that would stop under age people from using a site like Omegle, or easily catch paedophiles who can be on the other side of the world and still come into your child's bedroom and capture child exploitation images that are then distributed worldwide.

The current federal inquiry into age verification for online wagering and online pornography is a start but we are a long way off being able to rely on any technology being able to protect our children from pornography or other online harm.

Until then parents are the best protection and as Susan says "talk early, talk often."

Clare Masters is News Corp Australia News360's Education and Social Affairs Editor.

 

How to keep your kids safe online
How to keep your kids safe online