The Dangers of Online Chat Rooms and Message Boards

For starters, this isn’t going to be a cheery topic. It starts with the general dangers of online chat rooms, ranging from sexually explicit content to pedophiles and predators. It ends with a warning about the very real risk of suicide information spread online, targetting at-risk youth.

So what is a chat room?

Chat rooms are websites or programs that let people send text messages in real time for others to read instantly. Some chat rooms require the user to log in to create an alias while others let users message instantly. Chat rooms are like a virtual room where a large group of people talk all at once. It’s not the same as private messaging, where users talk one to one.

Online chat rooms are appealing to young people, kids and teens, for a variety of reasons. They can meet new people, ask questions, and share jokes. Most chat rooms are available 24/7 so they can find companionship at any hour. Want to discuss animals? There’s a chat room for that. Want help with homework? Another chat room.  Unfortunately, our kids don’t always find only positive things in these chat rooms.

Why are chat rooms so dangerous?

Just like the list of topics covered by chat rooms can be endless, unfortunately, the dangers are similarly limitless. A very real, basic danger is to kids’ and teens’ mental health. They may see or read something that can be damaging. Because anyone can post anything in a chat room, there is no way to filter out content dangerous for children. There are also trolls and bad actors looking to harm our kids by trying to hurt them with cyberbullying or sexually explicit language.

Kids and especially teens assume they know more about the world and internet than we do. In some cases they probably do, but one important thing that some kids and teens don’t understand is that people can pretend to be someone else online. They might think they are chatting with someone of a similar age but actually be talking with an adult who’s pretending. Other times, they do know they are talking with an adult, but they may not know that adult’s real intentions. In some dangerous cases, these adults will try to get the teen or kid to chat with them through private messages or a different app. We’ll go into more about why that is so dangerous later.

Whether or not our kids trust the people they speak to online, in a chat room, they aren’t talking with only one person. Any information shared is shared with the entire group. Any information could be dangerous information in the wrong hands. Street addresses, pet names, relative names, or phone numbers. Predators or hackers are looking for anything that might give them more access to our children.

Reading that, you might wonder, “Can you get hacked through a chat room? Can my kids?” The unfortunate answer is yes. Most chat rooms aren’t monitored or encrypted which makes it easy for hackers to steal private information.

What are hackers or predators looking for in these chat rooms?

While anyone can be targeted in a chat room, there are specific things that make us or our kids more vulnerable. Kids who talk about their problems at school or home are targeted. This attempt to connect with anyone who will listen makes them vulnerable. There’s also a danger for kids who overshare information or even if they have webcams. These predators are looking for kids who are easy to groom. They will spend more time than you’d expect building what your child will think is a real friendship. Remember, anyone can be targeted, boy or girl, young or old, but vulnerable, uneducated kids are more at risk than others.

With this information, predators can exploit our kids. They can use their “friendship” to convince kids to private message or to meet in person. They can even use personal information to find where your kid lives or hack their account to find out their IP address. Even if they don’t intend to meet up with your kid physically, they can still be a very real danger. Part of what a predator will do is invite kids to private message, isolating their conversation. While some will immediately message explicit content or ask for explicit photos, others will groom children for a long time, building up trust, before they do anything damaging. They are master manipulators so even clever kids who are being safe and smart can be tricked. This can even lead to them attempting to meet with kids in person.

Even being present in a chat room as a child can lead to dangerous exposure to sexual content. Studies have found that one in five teens will be exposed to unwanted sexual material online. 25% of those exposed found the content distressing. This video breaks down what these online interactions can potentially look like and how quickly it can happen.

Unfortunately, it still gets worse. These aren’t the only dangers of chat rooms.

Separate from hackers, trolls, or predators, kids and teens can place themselves in very real, very permanent danger. Chat rooms are often a place of discussion or even education. At their best, they can be used to motivate and uplift when someone is trying to fight an addiction or develop a good habit. On the other extreme end, they can be a source of negative information and motivation, even teaching kids and teens about how to commit suicide.

Suicide Chat Rooms

Research found that 59% of young people researched about suicide online and 80% of them inflicted self harm from information they found online. Out of 300 posts, 9% were about the methods of self-harm on chat rooms. Use of chat rooms was strongly linked to a greater risk of suicide. One reason is normalization. “In chat rooms, self-harm can be normalised. I observed this in my own practice. A teen told me she went to a chat room on cutting, where basically a lot of teens were acting as if it were cool and no big deal.” – Dr. Matthew Lorber

If you think your child or someone you love is considering suicide, here is more information to help. Remember, don’t ignore the warning signs.

Pro Ana Chat Rooms

Beyond suicide chat rooms, there are also chat rooms to discuss other topics like eating disorders. These “Pro-Ana” chat rooms are especially dangerous. People inside these chat rooms encourage each other with “thinspiration.” While Google and Yahoo have tried to shut down the websites, it seems to have only moved the groups further underground. They share tips and techniques to lose weight, often using the same tools as doctors or nutritionists (such as body mass indexes, calories, and weight/height comparisons) to make their message seem authentic or safe. At times, individuals will log into a chat room, looking for a support group or individual trainer. While that might sound positive, they are not looking for help with their disorder, they are looking for someone to get them in deeper into it. These groups or “coaches” will have rules for what a person can eat, when, and how much exercise they are required per calorie. If someone breaks the rules, an individual can be kicked out. All of this can be anonymous through a chat room or move to a more private messaging app like What’s App.

If you’re worried your child or teen is in an anorexia chat room, here are some search terms to look out for (remember they change all the time): thinspiration, pro-ana, pro-mia, #ed, dying to thin, bikini bridge, thigh gap, ana-chat, thinspo, etc.

If you’re worried your child or someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder or they confide in you, here are some steps recommended by

  • Seek help/treatment from a therapist or clinical psychologist. Treatment takes a team.
  • Stay calm when you find evidence or your child comes forward. Don’t panic, threaten, or lecture.
  • Be supportive. If your kids are under external stress factors, help them. Some kids are afraid to talk to their parents because they are scared they’ll lose trust.
  • Reduce the stigma. Unfortunately, eating disorders are a disorder, not a choice. Help them not feel shame or guilt when getting help.

Online support here

While both of these are severely dangerous kinds of chat rooms, experts agree that the threat isn’t for kids or teens to be exposed to these dangerous ideas as much as they are putting already at-risk youth into more peril. Like Dr. Matthew Lorber said, it’s the normalization of these behaviors.

If you are asking, “What are the most dangerous chat rooms?” Here’s the answer. They can all be dangerous. Chat rooms can be specifically designed around dangerous topics, like suicide or anorexia, but that doesn’t mean those topics are only contained in those places. Anyone can post in any chat room about anything. While there might be moderators, there can be no guarantees.

How do you keep your kids safe?

Any easy, painless step is to keep your kids off of chat rooms. There are many tools and resources out there for kids looking to connect with likeminded people or find out information. Eliminate all the risks of chat rooms by not using them. 

What if you and your child or teen talk and then together make the decision that they are going to still use a chat room? How do you keep them safe from the dangers of chat rooms? Even if you decide to keep your kids from using them, you should still know some tips to keep your kids safe online.

  • An important first step is to make sure they know about Cyber Safety. Check out this article for more info.
  • Keep chat room conversation in a well trafficked area of your house. 
  • Make sure the chat room has live monitors and is secure. 
  • No webcams or sharing images. 
  • Limit time spent in chat rooms.
  • Make sure your child is using a separate screen name from their real name.
  • Don’t share personal information, including address, school names, street names, family names, or phone numbers.

Troomi is also worried about children’s safety, which is why they developed their childsafe smartphones, designed to teach kids responsibility with a phone while keeping them safe from tech dangers. These phones don’t have chat rooms and their safelisting feature keeps kids safe from unknown contacts and websites. They are also equipped with military grade security, keeping your kid’s phone safe from hackers. Check out Troomi for the plan right for you and your family.