Earlier this week, Investigator Mike Harris, who's assigned to the Child Sex Offender Internet Investigations unit of the Jefferson County District Attorney's Office, visited the Chatroulette website for the first time -- and promptly got an eyeful.
"Within the first ten seconds we looked at it, we already saw a penis," he says.
That's hardly the only tool on the site, which he believes has the potential to be more dangerous to teens than MySpace or Facebook (despite having generated no local criminal complaints at this writing). During an interview, Harris pulls it up, and before more than a minute has passed, he notes, "Here's a guy masturbating right now."
Founded by a Russian teenager last November, Chatroulette puts an unusual spin on social media. The site randomly connects users who can communicate via video and text in real time -- and if the conversation starts to drag, either of them can instantly click to the next person in the cue.
The site's popularity has been mushrooming to such a degree that even the mainstream media has caught on. Within the past month, it's been featured by the New York Times and CNN, among other major outlets.
But while Harris said he'd heard about Chatroulette in passing, he wasn't truly hipped to it prior to a presentation about Internet dangers at Jefferson Academy. "The kids came up and said, 'Hey, have you seen this? You ought to look at it. It's kind of scary.'"
So he did -- and quickly got a close-up look at someone's love gun.
According to Harris, the JA students didn't mention frequent nudity on Chatroulette: "They just said, 'There's a lot of creepers out there.' Kids go on there just because you see so many weird people. To them, it's fun and adventurous. But the problem is, some of these people aren't fun or adventurous. They're dangerous people."
How much of a threat is a matter of speculation. Harris says after spending time on Chatroulette, he began polling colleagues in various departments to see if they've seen escalating problems associated with it -- "and no one has yet had a case or an inquiry. But it just takes one kid who makes a mistake and you've got a case. It's kind of like sexting, but this gives them an even more anonymous avenue, so to speak. Because they can do it and then click to the next person."
Or they can linger as long as they'd like, and troll for more information. "A predator could say, 'Let's talk more on the phone. Give me your e-mail address so we can stay connected,'" Harris says.
Given these prospects, Harris brought his concerns about Chatroulette to Jefferson County District Attorney Scott Storey, who promptly issued a parents advisory about the site. See it below.
Granted, Harris doesn't see Chatroulette as the riskiest technology currently at kids' disposal -- at least not yet.
"The biggest problem we're seeing with predators right now is random text-messaging to cell phones," he says. "Perpetrators know that when kids leave their house, they don't take their computer with them, but they take their cell phones everywhere. At the assembly, I asked, 'How many of you sleep with your cell phones?,' and a good 50 to 55 percent raised that hands. And that gives a perpetrator 24-hour access -- which is why they're sending out random text messages, hoping to hook up with a kid.
"I'm working a case right now with a young girl who just turned fourteen, who's been talking to thirty different people out of state through text messaging -- people who've been asking her for naked pictures. And that's a concern."
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He hopes he won't hear similar reports about Chatroulette -- and if he doesn't, he'll give Jefferson Academy students the credit.
"We give them tools and tips about how to be safer, and after presentations, they say, 'Do you know this site?' So the kids are our intelligence."
Sort of like the Penis Patrol. Here's the Jeffco press release:
DA Warns Parents of the Online Dangers of "ChatRoulette"
Jefferson County District Attorney Scott Storey is warning parents that there is a new way for predators to meet kids online.
Launched in November 2009 by a 17-year-old Russian teen, Chatroulette is based on the roulette wheel model. This new "web cam-based" social networking site can be far more dangerous and addictive than more popular sites like Facebook and MySpace.
What is Chatroulette? It works like this, if your teen has web cam and they visit the website, all they need do is say that they are 16-years-old (whether they are or not). Their web cam is connected to a web cam of a random stranger. Either person can decide to chat and watch the other, or hit the "next" button. The wheel spins again to reveal another stranger. As a parent, imagine your child sitting in the perceived safety of his/her bedroom while an infinite number of strangers are lined up in the hall to go into the room and meet with your child face-to-face. That's Chatroulette in a nutshell.
Chatroulette parties are dangerous activities emerging from this new site. Teens get together at a party to spin the roulette wheel, then view and chat with strangers for entertainment. Peer pressure can make teens say and do things with strangers that they normally would not do when they are alone.
Parents need to be aware of the graphic nature of this new Internet obsession and take steps to ensure that their children are protected from the actions of strangers on Chatroulette as well as other Internet sites.
The District Attorney's Child Sex Offender Internet Investigations (CSOII) Unit takes a proactive approach to online predators. The Unit is headed by DA
Investigator Mike Harris who routinely takes Internet safety classes into school. "Kids are our best source of intelligence," says Investigator Harris, "We learned about this site from students at a presentation we did at Jefferson Academy. The kids know what's going on online, and it's our job to keep them safe."
Investigator Harris says, "Web cams may be a great way to stay in touch with family and friends across the country, but they are dangerous for kids who do not always use good judgment. Our biggest concern is that you never know who is capturing your video at the other end. When any information - video, text or photo - is sent into cyberspace, it is gone forever."
"We recommend that parents be cautious before providing your teen with a web cam," says Storey, "Most laptop computer come equipped with web cams, but they can be disabled."
For more information about Internet safety go to www.districtattorney1.com