Kids these days are used to sharing their lives with the world on blogs and social networking sites. And now, through the use of webcams, kids are able to give the world a window right into their bedrooms. This creates a whole new level of risk that parents and educators must be able to protect children from.
Webcams are video cameras, usually attached directly to a computer, that send images to the Internet. These images can be still photos, a series of images sent in succession, or streaming video.
Webcams are small, cheap and easy to use, making them accessible to kids and teenagers. In most cases, all you have to do to set one up is plug it into a computer and install the software. You can then use it to videoconference with other webcam owners, or you can post a link to your webcam on one of the many webcam sites on the Internet. Anybody who visits that site can then view the images from your webcam. Some webcams even automatically post the URL of the webcam on a Web site when the software is installed.
Even users who do not post their webcams on one of these sites could find their lives being shared with the world. Each webcam has a Web address that can be found by search engines, who will then post it among their listings. Usually each camera has a password that must be used to access the webcam, but many users do not bother to change the default password that their webcams came with. There are also Trojan horse programs that allow hackers to activate a webcam without the user's knowledge.
Webcams pose a serious risk to children because they provide a visual link with online predators. Predators scan webcam sites to find children and teenagers with webcams and then try to convince the children to expose themselves or do things on camera in exchange for money and gifts. This process usually happens gradually, with the predators starting with innocent-seeming requests and then asking the child to go one step further each time. In some cases, children have gone to the extent of setting up their own self-published pornography Web sites, with subscription services available to anybody who wants to watch them.
While there are many dangers to webcams, they can also be a useful tool for parents. Many daycare centers and nursery schools have webcams in their facilities so parents can check on their kids during the day, and some parents install webcams in their homes to check on their children when they are away. Safe webcam use simply requires taking certain precautions to make sure that access to them is restricted to only certain people.
These protective measures include:
- If you have children and you do not need to have a webcam, do not have one on your computer.
- If you have a computer with a webcam, keep it in a common room, not in a child's bedroom.
- Teach your children to use webcams only to communicate with people they know.
- When you are not using your webcam, put the lens cap on or unplug it.
- Make sure children understand that what they do on a webcam is not necessarily private. Teach them to never do anything in front of a webcam that they wouldn't want the entire world to see.
- Don't post your webcam URL on the Web.
- Teach children about the dangers of posting personal information and pictures online.
- Teach children to not respond to instant messages or emails from strangers.
- On the Net, Unseen Eyes (New York Times)
- Through His Webcam, a Boy Joins a Sordid Online World (New York Times)
- Webcams (Wikipedia)
- Videoconferencing (Wikipedia)