Video chat site Omegle features children engaging in sexual activity

The popular video chat site Omegle is a haven for predators and features children explicitly touching themselves, according to a new BBC investigation.

Omegle, a website that connects random strangers for virtual video calling, has exploded in popularity during the pandemic, particularly among younger demographics.

Fuelled by popular social media influencers on YouTube and TikTok, young users have flocked to the platform to emulate their idols.

But the website has a distinct lack of moderation, and children as young as 8 or 9 can be exposed to adult strangers performing explicit sexual acts in a matter of minutes.

Groups focused on the prevention of child sexual abuse have raised the alarm about the website and are concerned that predators are using the site to collect self-generated child sex abuse material.

Omegle, which has almost doubled in popularity since the beginning of the pandemic, claims to have increased moderation efforts in recent months.

But during a single one hour period while the BBC investigated the platform, researchers were paired with 12 masturbating men, eight naked males and seven porn adverts.

Any user browsing Omegle could have connected with these explicit images, including young children.

After a spate of viral videos from influencers like KSI, Charli D’Amelio, James Charles and Emma Chamberlain, whose audiences tend to be under-18, traffic spiked to the site – in December, 3.7 million visits were made to the site, mainly from younger demographics.

TikTok, which drives a huge amount of traffic to the site, has since banned sharing links to Omegle – but videos tagged with ‘Omegle’ have been viewed billions of times.

While the Chinese social media platform claims to not have found harmful content related to Omegle on their platform, it says it will continue to moderate it.

One 15-year-old Omegle user interviewed as part of the investigation said that ‘men being gross’ is something her and her friend see a large amount of.

‘It should be better monitored. It’s like the dark web but for everyone,’ Keira added.

It’s not the first time Omegle has attracted the attention of authorities – in the past six months, governments in the UK, US, Norway, France, Canada and Australia have issued warnings about the site.

While Omegle’s policies state that users under 18 aren’t allowed on the site, there is no age verification to stop them.

Omegle has the option to input interest words – when the BBC inputted a sexually explicit word, even more explicit content that was supposed to be banned on the platform came through.

A researcher from the investigation team was also paired with young prepubescent boys masturbating on video chat, which researchers reported to authorities.

The ease with which researchers found potential child sexual abuse ‘should underscore the necessity of age verification on social media platforms,’ according to a spokeswoman from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in the US.

Child abuse imagery prevention organisation the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) agreed that the results of our investigation were troubling but followed a recent trend.

‘We have found self-generated abuse material elsewhere on the internet which has been created by predators who have captured and distributed footage from Omegle,’ said Chris Hughes, hotline director at the foundation.

‘Some of the videos we’ve seen show individuals self-penetrating on webcam, and this type of activity is going on in a household setting often where we know parents are present. There are conversations that you can hear, even children being asked to come down for tea.’

There were nearly nine million attempts to access child sex abuse images online in the UK during the first month of lockdown in April.

The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) said data from three unidentified tech companies revealed there had been at least 8.8 million searches for such material across a month-long period between March and April as the restriction measures were introduced.

They registered each time an internet user attempted to access a blocked website address flagged by the IWF in a regularly updated list of URLs.

The true figure is likely to be even higher, the organisation warned, as only data sets from three internet companies were used.

Susie Hargreaves, IWF chief executive, said the UK must ‘face up’ to the problem of demand for criminal content from domestic predators and appealed to companies operating in the UK, which do not provide protections, to step up.

She said: ‘Whilst the majority of the UK’s internet connections are filtered by this list, there are still companies operating in the UK which offer no such protections. If we’re serious about creating a safer internet, everyone needs to step up.

‘It’s important to disrupt the availability of these images and videos, and it helps give victims reassurance that the footage of their sexual abuse is not being passed around and enjoyed by these people.’

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