COMMENTARY: The benefits and real predatorial dangers of online chatting

Many people who did not grow up during the digital age remain unaware of the existence and potential dangers of the website Omegle, a site that allows users to video chat with randomly selected people from around the world.

I was recently reminiscing with childhood friends of mine who had grown up with me in Bixby Knolls, and they reminded me of all the times we had logged onto Omegle as a group with our friends and the strange experiences we had on it.

Although Omegle has an option where users can input their interests and meet people based on them and also released its newest feature– called “college chat” that requires users to have an email ending in “.edu” before joining in chats– its main function allows people to have truly random chats through video and messaging. The service does not require any sort of registration or membership from users before they are allowed to begin chatting anonymously. Once users enter the site, there is simply a large blue button that says “start a chat.”

While it may be hard to find the goal of talking to strangers online appealing, Omegle has reached a level of popularity among young people and adults who want to do exactly that, and the website promotes this with its motto “Talk to strangers!”

When I was attending middle school, Omegle was a popular site to visit during sleepovers and when adults weren’t around– which is why I can vouch for the bizarre and inappropriate aspects of the website.

Sometimes things would go well, and we actually would meet people our age for harmless conversations. However, to find someone who was our age and non-threatening, we first had to quickly click through randomly selected video chats with partially-dressed adult men.

Everyone I know who used Omegle as a teen or pre-teen has had an experience of inadvertently seeing something sexually-explicit being done by their randomly selected chat partner.

A few nights after our initial conversation, my two friends and I decided to revisit the website after a decade to see if it was still how we remembered it– and it was.

For the few seconds before we ended the chat, we were matched with two different users that had their webcams aimed at their exposed genitalia, which was actually less frequent than we remembered.

We also had three separate chats with underaged users who told us their ages ranged from 14 to 16. Two of these chats were with groups of girls similar to my friends and I years ago, while one underage female user was using Omegle alone.

Letting adults anonymously chat with children and underage teens with no oversight seems dangerous, and Omegle does not seem to dispute this, since the website warns users that they might be randomly matched with predators.

Its home page informs potential users that “When you use Omegle, we pick someone else at random and let you talk one on one. To help you stay safe, chats are anonymous unless you tell someone who you are (not suggested!), and you can stop a chat at any time. Predators have been known to use Omegle, so please be careful.”