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Video chat takes off

By Sarah Klein

For a while there it seemed you couldn't go a whole day without hearing someone mention Chatroulette, the free-for-all video chat site that went viral earlier this year, attracting thrill-seekers and headlines in almost equal numbers.

For some observers, Chatroulette reminded them of CUCME – pronounced "see you, see me" – which was briefly in vogue back in the 1990s. Between then and now, video chat has grown enormously in popularity, with people of all ages drawn in by ubiquitous webcams and high-speed Internet connections.

Much of the early impetus behind video chat came from corporations, which found that video conferencing was a highly effective way to communicate and cut down on travel costs. Popular video chat services like TokBox, Sightspeed, and Oovoo continue to appeal to a combination of the business user and the consumer, offering various combinations of paid and free access.

Skype, founded in 2003, was an early pioneer of bringing video chat to the masses and it continues to be the gold standard in offering easy-to-use video and phone service via the Internet. According to the Skype homepage, there are over 20 million users online at any given time, with approximately one third of the total minutes being devoted to video links.

So where do kids go to video chat?

Ironically, it looks like the mainstream e-mail services are attracting most of the youth video chat traffic. While teens and younger kids may have all but abandoned e-mail for texting, Instant Messaging and Facebook updates, they are returning to the e-mail providers for some quality face-to-face time. Gmail, iChat, MSN Messenger, AIM, and Yahoo Messenger have all added video capability over the last couple of years and are reporting ever-increasing activity.

For more customized video chat and video-based social networks, there are services like Stickam, TinyChat, and paltalk. We can also be fairly certain that the main social networks will not ignore video for too much longer. You can already add third-party video chat applications to your Facebook profile and Facebook itself has admitted to testing various video chat solutions.

The fact that video chat has moved out of the shadows and into the mainstream doesn't make it any less risky for immature young minds. It would be a mistake for parents to think that their kids don't use video chat or don't need careful monitoring and strict rules when they do.

However, once those rules are in place and expectations have been set, video chat can be a fun – and safe – way for kids and teens to foster their online friendships.

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