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The Online Mom provides internet technology advice and information to help parents protect their kids, encourage responsible behavior and safely harness the power of technology in the new digital world. Social networking, photo sharing, video games, IM & texting, internet security, cyberbullying, educational resources, the latest on tech hardware, gadgets and software for kids 3-8, tweens and teens, and more.

Social Networking Goes Live

By Michael Connolly

When we think of social networking, we think of Facebook or MySpace, the two mega-sites that dominate the online social scene with a combined U.S. membership of over 150 million. Despite misgivings over privacy issues and the dangers of inappropriate posting by teens, online social networking has gained a measure of respectability, with the over-40 age groups leading the recent surge in Facebook sign-ups.

But while Facebook has been grabbing all the headlines, another kind of social networking has been increasing in popularity among teens and even younger kids. It has its roots in the chat rooms of the late's but has been updated to embrace current day technologies and broadband speeds. Say hello to live video streaming!

It used to be that web cams were used for office conference calls, traffic reports, or keeping an eye on the nanny. Now anyone with a $500 laptop and a high-speed Internet connection can set up what amounts to their own TV channel! Sites like Livestream, YouCams and Stickam actively encourage exactly that, urging visitors to plug in their web cam and start broadcasting.

By now, most parents are familiar with YouTube and other video-sharing sites but that’s not what we are talking about here. Live streaming means exactly what it says: you either broadcast your own material live to a known or unknown audience, or you can watch someone else’s broadcast. Or you can join a live video chat room where all the participants can see and hear each other. As far as the chat rooms are concerned, they are similar to Skype or iChat but with none of the permission-based access controls.

Now, some of the video streaming sites like Livestream and Veodia are clearly aimed at a business audience or are seeking to provide serious news and content. Livestream has some fascinating channels like Spaceflight Now, which covers NASA launches and other space news. Other sites like YouCams, BlogStar and Stickam also have serious content but clearly put more emphasis on youth culture and the social networking side. Unfortunately, some of the chat room names like Sexxi Ladies, Toker’s Hangout and Flirters will resurrect memories of how the Internet got itself such a bad reputation in the first place!

Although many of the video streaming sites restrict participation to 14-year-olds and above, registration requirements are minimal and often there is not even an attempt to verify a registrant’s e-mail address.  A quick review of many of the sites indicates that teen and even younger participation is widespread. In a world when sexting via cell phones has been described as commonplace, it’s not hard to imagine the errors of judgment that might occur when a susceptible teen is egged on by a chat room full of strangers.

Just another reason to know what our kids are up to when they’re on the computer!

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