The teenage years are periods of personal exploration, experimentation, and change. As such, teenage students frequently seek anonymous conversation online. According to The Routledge Companion to Digital Media and Children, anonymous online communication offers teens an outlet for exploring their identity without judgement. The Companion details the results of a study to discover why students turned to anonymous online sites so frequently. Many found these sites fun and enjoyable. Others appreciated the questions they were asked, as they led to new discoveries about themselves. However helpful they may be, anonymous forums and chatrooms are rife with risks. Students often encounter or are asked for inappropriate material. And just as anonymity encourages self-discovery, it also emboldens trolls and bullies. Therefore, it’s essential that schools do what they must to keep students safe online. When it comes to forums and chatrooms, what do schools need to know?
What Is a Forum/Chat Room?
Often, forums and chat rooms are places where users can post anonymously about different topics that they are interested in, struggling with, or curious about. Virtual Teen Forums, for example, has a variety of different topics pertaining to teens. As you can imagine, these topics can range from sharing cat pictures to talking about depression and other mental illnesses to talking about physical and sexual abuse. These forums can help teens realize they are not the only ones feeling a certain way or struggling with a certain problem. However, the advice they receive is from other teens who may or may know what they are talking about — not to mention the fact that users are setting themselves up for predators posing as ‘helpful’ teens.
How Do They Work?
While it depends on the type of forum/chat room, typically, a group discusses a certain topic in a thread. People then pick a topic that interests them and post their comment to the discussion. Chat rooms resemble typical group texting and have a typical text interface. Forums function more like a giant comment section at the bottom of an article. Forums usually start with a main post discussing a certain topic. People then reply, creating a discussion. Since these forums can be personal, students might open themselves up to cyberbullying by posting sensitive content through the thread.
Where Can Forums/Chat Rooms be Accessed?
Wisper and Kik, two chat room apps, allow users to remain anonymous. Wisper allows people to share feelings and join groups with like-minded people while remaining anonymous. With Kik, a user can either have a private conversation with someone or join a group. There are also online chat rooms like Stranger Meet Up and ChatIW where members can chat anonymously with anyone, as well as online forms such as Virtual Teen where teens post about pretty much anything under a chosen username.
Forums and Chat Rooms: How Can Schools Keep Students Safe?
Forums and chat rooms can be a potential threat to any student, just like typical social media sites. Ensuring that students feel comfortable enough to discuss sensitive topics with teachers and counselors may keep them from going to online to try to solve their problems. Regardless, it’s essential to teach students how to communicate safely online. Starting with simple guidelines on what to share and what not to share can go a long way. Schools may think their content filters keep students from forums, chat rooms, and social media sites. However, students can easily bypass content filters. Screen monitoring software like LearnSafe works with content filters to keep students safe on school computers. LearnSafe detects cyberbullying and predatory grooming — things that content filters miss.