Omegle is an increasingly popular website designed to link up strangers at random for live video and text chats. Global child protection groups are becoming increasingly concerned about predators using the site to obtain child sexual abuse material given its reputation for unpredictable and shocking content and obtaining the reputation as a “predator’s playground.”
Research by data analyst Semrush shows Omegle grew globally from about 34 million visits per month in January 2020 to 65 million in January 2021. In the UK alone, traffic increased by 61% from predominantly people under the age of 34; many of them teenagers. Its popularity may have spiked more recently due to more people being at home and looking to meet others during the Coronavirus pandemic.
Omegle has also been gaining momentum by becoming the subject of viral videos posted from popular social media influencers. On TikTok alone, videos tagged with “Omegle” have been viewed more than 9.4 billion times.
As a result of a BBC investigation, TikTok has now banned sharing links with Omegle and many schools, police forces and government agencies have issued warnings about the site.
Omegle’s disclaimer states users should not be under 13 years old and users under 18 should have parental permission but there is no age verification in place and it is accessible to everyone. The BBC monitored the site over 10 hours and were paired with dozens of under 18s; some appearing as young as seven or eight years old. Within a two-hour period they were automatically connected with 12 masturbating men, eight naked males and seven porn sites. This number increased with the input of generic keywords relating to adult material.
They were also paired with prepubescent boys masturbating live on video chat. One identified himself as 14 years old. Some of the live videos are obviously being made in household settings where parents are present. Background conversations can be heard, even children being asked to come downstairs for tea.
A parent in the UK told how her eight year old daughter witnessed a man masturbating and was asked to undress and play a game of truth or dare.
The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) found the results troubling but noted they followed a recent trend. They said some of the self-generated abuse material has been captured by predators from Omegle and distributed elsewhere on the internet.
Omegle was created in 2009 by the then 18 year old, Leif K Brooks. The BBC tried to contact Brookes over a period of three months and after tracking him through a separate company he has co-founded, he finally responded, telling the BBC his site had increased moderation efforts in recent months and had banned the key words identified although the BBC have been unable to verify this statement. He also claimed the site’s porn adverts were age restricted but could not give details as to how that was possible without age verification.
It is clear that more legislation is required and sites such as Omegle need to take their responsibilities seriously. Julian Knight MP, Chairman of the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee suggested a series of fines need to be implemented or even the blocking of websites which offer no protection to children.
Written by Lyndsey Jackson at BLM