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Disturbing confessions from chatroom users seeking legal advice online after sexual interactions with children

26/02/2024
Academics found just 2% of the Omegle users expressed regret that they interacted with an underage person and 89% blamed the child

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A new study has uncovered disturbing confessions from chatroom users seeking legal advice online after having sexual interactions with children as young as 12. Researchers from Middlesex University's Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS) discovered dozens of forum messages on Avvo and Reddit from mainly users of Omegle in which they admitted sexting with underage teens and asked for legal advice. Most interactions began on Omegle as an initial meeting place, with a few on Reddit and ChatRoulette and apps such as Kik, Snapchat and WhatsApp were used to continue their discussions with underage users.

One chatroom user admitted: “I talked to a girl on Omegle and she said she was of 18 years. We sexted and exchanged images and videos. But then she told me about school, so I asked her to tell honestly and she told me she was 12.” Another chatroom user asked: “If you were on an anonymous chat site and you were talking to someone who claimed to be 18 or older and invited you to ‘sext’ with her on a picture messenger and exchanged some pictures and she revealed herself to be 12 could you get in trouble for that?”

Academics found just 2% of the Omegle users expressed regret that they interacted with an underage person and 89% blamed the child. Dr Elena Martellozzo, a CATS co-researcher and Associate Professor of Criminology at Middlesex University, said: "The actions of adults engaging in these behaviours are not merely for amusement; it constitutes abuse. They are interacting with potentially vulnerable and needy children. While some may trivialise it as 'just another penis online' or 'a bit of a joke,' the reality is that it can have grave and lasting consequences."

Omegle was shut down in November last year but there are a number of similar chatrooms in operation, with the study warning ‘access to minors for sexual purposes has not only become easier, but the process has also become faster’.

Academics found children often experience unwanted sexual exposure and repeated requests to exchange explicit content. They highlighted how ‘through live streaming chat websites, motivated offenders have multiple opportunities to not just coerce and obtain nude or semi-nude images of children, but also to expose themselves and/or engage in virtual sex acts, such as exposing others (often non-consensually) to masturbation in fast hit-and-run style interactions’. One chatroom user said: “I’d never used it [Omegle] before, but I heard it kept you anonymous so I thought I’d masturbate on video chat, just cycling through random people until I found a girl my age. I’m 24 [and] I’m worried because I know a couple kids saw my junk.”

Dr Paul Bleakley, an Assistant Professor in Criminal Justice at the University of New Haven and CATS co-researcher, said: “We typically think of online predation involving someone grooming and talking to them directly over a period of time but this is instant and these men don’t really care who sees them or who they connect with. This has made the environment such a dangerous place because the behaviour is normalised.”

Paula Bradbury, a CATS co-researcher and Criminology Lecturer at Middlesex University, said: “What was alarming was the extent of adults who were willingly and actively engaging in sexual behaviour, they were naked, masturbating and searching through and their immediate response was to shake off all accountability for their actions and put the onus on the child. That is so worrying in this online environment when children as young as 12 are quite distinguishable. These chatrooms are closing down and popping up all the time and offenders are going to use it for the same purpose and parents don’t know what is happening or what their child is doing.”

The study  - ­ 'I Had No Choice': Adult Neutralisation of Online Sexual Engagement with Children - has been peer reviewed and published in the Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology.

Photo by Philipp Katzenberger on Unsplash

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