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Beware of the Webcam

It may be great for staying in touch but it can also promote risky behavior.

By Sarah Klein

Whether it’s used for chatting with family or friends, for work-related video-conferencing, or simply to broadcast the cuteness of the family’s new puppy, there’s no denying the impact that webcams are having on the way we use the Internet.

The webcam – a digital camera that can be attached to a computer to stream live video over the Internet – has brought millions of distant friends, relatives, and other web users together in ways that were unimaginable only a few short years ago. As fellow Online Kid Xander Rothaus wrote, webcams have made it possible to see the faces of loved ones separated by hundreds of miles and hours of time difference. And because they now come with a relatively low price tag or are pre-installed on new computers and laptops, webcams are increasingly accessible by all members of the family.

The webcam makes headlines

But as seems to be the case with a lot of Internet-based technologies, the rapid growth of the webcam has come with a whole new set of worries and concerns for parents. In recent years, teen use of webcams has crossed into some frighteningly risky territory.

In December 2005, the New York Times published a story about Justin Berry, a California teen who logged on with his webcam hoping to meet other teens and instead was caught up in an Internet pornography ring. Of course, most parents are aware of the dangers of cyber-stalkers and online predators, but the Times article sheds light on a different kind of webcam scare – where adolescents can be drawn into participating in illicit sex sites.

Webcam use among teens became even more notorious in November of last year, as a Florida youth broadcast his own death over the Internet. According to CNN, the teen took a large dose of anti-depressant pills off-camera in the early hours of a weekday morning. He then blogged about the suicide attempt and trained his webcam on himself as he lay in bed waiting to die. As if a teen broadcasting his own suicide wasn’t alarming enough, it was also reported that people watching did nothing to help. Some even posted comments urging him to take more pills and chiding him that it wasn’t a real attempt!

Anonymous entertainment

The problem stems from the kind of entertainment that some people are looking for on the Internet in general and through watching live webcasts in particular. These viewers aren’t there to police the web but instead are using it for their own enjoyment, however mystifying some of that “enjoyment” might be for most of us.

The Internet also allows people to remain largely anonymous if they so choose, and therefore unaccountable. In the Florida case, no-one could be directly linked to watching the suicide attempt and neglecting to alert officials. This same anonymity is what encourages many of the cruel comments and other anti-social behavior that is known under the generic heading of cyber-bullying. Such cyber-bullying, by many accounts, is now a more common and realistic threat to teens online than the sometimes-exaggerated fears of online sexual predators.

But threats of cyber predators aside, this increased willingness of teens to allow strangers to peer into their lives is startling. Of course, many of them are using the technology simply and safely – to send pictures to friends or to video-chat with grandparents living far away. But when a child is offering a peek into the intimacy of his or her daily life, perhaps including an invitation into their bedroom, then it is time to intervene.

Parents need to be vigilant

There should be a clear line between the kind of video sharing that is safe and the exhibitionist, suggestive kind that may attract the wrong viewers. This line seems to be blurring in today’s teens, who are sharing not only their daily activities but their deepest emotions and vulnerabilities.

Most parents would expect their child to tell them if a friend was coming over but having a private webcam is like inviting a “friend” right into the bedroom. And this is mostly happening without any parental knowledge or oversight.

Seeing an anonymous friend or web surfer face-to-face in this way can also easily cause a child to let his or her guard down. Video chatting takes away some of the fear of the unknown and can make chatting with a complete stranger seem safer than it is.

Luckily, such tragic events as the Florida suicide, along with online sexual predators and severe cyber-bullying, are still the exceptions rather than the rule. But it can’t be said enough: If you don’t want someone else to see it, don’t put it online. Today’s tech-savvy teens know this mantra by heart but some continue to present their lives as open books on their webcam broadcasts. Already it is less shocking to see younger and younger teens posting sexier and more adult pictures and videos. It seems like we have come to accept certain risqué behavior as long as it doesn’t appear to present any immediately danger.

It can be difficult to strike a balance between affording your teen the right amount of privacy and supplying them with the vital safety information they need. You can't stop your teen from using the Internet, nor is it plausible that you’ll be monitoring their every move, especially if he or she is old enough to have a personal computer or surf the web without supervision.

Instead, parents should discuss with their teens what is appropriate to share over a webcam and how they expect the webcam to be used. With the right guidelines in place, the webcam can become a great way to stay in touch with friends and family and we can help steer teens away from using it to broadcast tragic events or dangerously personal information.

Sarah Klein is a freelance writer for both print and online media living in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has been featured in Health.com, Sports Illustrated Kids, and Scholastic Classroom Magazines. To read more of her work, visit SarahKleinWrites.com.

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