A chat room is a place online that essentially allows people to carry on a conversation, in a group, through typing. The minute you hit 'enter,' your message is seen by everyone that is logged in to the room. While these can be great places to find intriguing conversation, they also pose some very real risks, for both adults and children alike. When thinking Internet safety, it is also important to consider chat room safety for the whole family.
Before you begin chatting away, you and your family should keep a few things in mind. Since most chat rooms are open to anyone, there is usually no way to verify the identity of the person you're talking with. And because the discussion is public, anything that is said can be read by everyone present, or copied and posted elsewhere. Most chat services do offer an option for a private chat. Although this can be great for adults, or for two children that are already friends, it can also be where perpetrators are lurking to have inappropriate conversations with unsuspecting children.
One way to keep your family safe in chat rooms is to restrict the use to paid-only services. Often, if someone with ulterior motives is required to enter a valid credit or debit card number, it discourages them from joining. In addition, mandatory identification verification can make it much easier for administrators and law enforcement officials to track abusers if necessary. Talk candidly with your family about smart chat room behavior, and in turn, listen to what they have to say.
When enrolling in a chat service, whether paid or free, choose a screen name that is not easily gender identified. Choosing a gender-neutral name can discourage perpetrators because they are unsure of who they are dealing with. Also, don't list your age. If your chat service asks you to create a profile, only enter a minimal amount of information, and nothing that will indicate your age or gender. If you are in a chat room and you witness anything that you feel is not appropriate, report it immediately to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's CyberTip Line.
Avoid posting pictures of yourself and your family in chat sessions or online profiles. When someone asks what you are doing, do not divulge your daily routine to them. With ISP addresses widely available, it is easy for online perpetrators to learn your location; if they have your daily routine committed to memory it is easier for them to victimize you and your family.
Don't open any links that you are given during a chat session. Most often, especially if you are chatting with friends you know very well, these links will lead to harmless YouTube videos. If you're dealing with someone you just met though, you may be given a link to a pornographic website or a virus that will infect your computer.
Last but certainly not least, don't forget to pay attention to instant messenger services as well; often, private chat sessions can spill over in to this more immediate form of communication. What's worse, most cell phones now offer instant messenger through your standard cell phone agreement, and kids are savvy to that.
Overall, your family is relatively safe in Internet chat sites. Although the television would lead you to believe that there are millions of children being exploited due to chat rooms and social networking sites, the reality is, the percentage is very low. Be vigilant in monitoring what is going on inside your family computer, and keep open the lines of communication with your children. If you really listen to what they are saying, you will find that they give you great insight into their online lives. These bits of information can be used later on to start conversations with your family about chat room safety.
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Richard Bliss is an Internet Security Expert and VP of Marketing with with worldwide security software provider GWAVA. Visit his GroupWise Marketing Blog for Novell GroupWise information.
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