who immediately starts unzipping his trousers
Is new website the most disturbing internet craze yet?
By Olivia Lichtenstein
When this writer's daughter told her about a 'cool' new teen website, she decided to investigate. What she found was the most worrying internet craze to date.
Late on a weekday afternoon and I'm sitting at my computer. On the screen in front of me are two small boxes - little video streams - one above the other. My face is in the bottom box. The face and bare torso of a man is in the one on top. Let's call him Gerry.
Beside Gerry's face is a box into which we can type, so that we can chat to one another. So he types hello and then asks where I come from. I say hello back and tell him I am from London.
Our exchange has lasted barely seconds, but suddenly another message pops up. He's asking me if I will remove my top so he can see my breasts.
He is a complete stranger, and one of the many crude and deviant men I have encountered in the past 30 minutes.
I quickly click a button to have him removed from my screen.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is the world of Chatroulette - an internet site that is turning into something of a phenomenon.
It was my 16-year- old daughter who told me about Chatroulette, a 'cool' new site she and her friends recently started using.
It's the fast-growing, latest fad among teenagers - a quick and easy way to communicate online with people from all over the world.
It works literally like roulette. Users log on, press a big button labelled 'Next' and it then randomly connects you to any one of a number of people across the world currently logged on. The gimmick is the fact that all of the users have webcams - so they can 'meet' the random strangers.
It was the idea of 17-year-old Russian schoolboy Andrey Ternovskiy. He launched it in November last year and his business quickly grew virally from 50 users to 50,000 in its first month.
One million people now visit it each day. However, what may have started as the innocent game of a Moscow schoolboy has quickly become a potential tailor-made portal for perverts and paedophiles - proving once again that the internet is putting the lives of our vulnerable teenagers (and adults) in jeopardy.
And believe me, after you've seen it, you'll never complain about your teen's obsession with texting their friends again.
For this, the latest Frankenstein monster spawned by the internet is, as with so much web-based activity, impossible to monitor, restrict or control.
After my daughter first told me about it a few weeks ago, I decided to investigate the site for myself - and, even for a technophobe like me, the ease with which I was able to access it was terrifying.
It doesn't require you to log in or register (despite the fact that the site states it is for over-16s only) and all you need is a computer with a webcam. It's entirely free and once you've clicked a button to allow the site to access your webcam, your face appears in one of two boxes.
In fact, it's so disturbingly easy that even primary school children, with basic computer skills, could access it.
Once you're plugged in, the site immediately starts searching for a 'partner' and within seconds you find yourself jettisoned into a stranger's bedroom, living room, or, all too often, trousers.
The webpage is unsophisticated and states only the following rules: '16+, clothes, report button.' More often than not, though, as I discovered, 'unclothed' was the order of the day.
And the button which allows you to report unseemly behaviour is all very well, but the perpetrator's punishment is a tame warning and 40 minutes suspension from the site. Hardly a deterrent. During my time on Chatroulette, the users I encountered were men and women from Germany, Holland, Turkey, Spain, America and Britain. To begin, you click a button marked 'New game'.
If you don't like the look of the person you have been connected to, you click a button marked 'Next' and somebody else instantly pops up at random. They can be any age, any sex and hail from Manchester to Moscow - although the site's lingua franca is English.
Many of the people on this site are exhibitionists who are free to display themselves to total strangers. Mostly, the people I chatted to were men. Some of them showed their faces - others angled the computer in such a way as to mask their identities and, all too often, to reveal their genitals.
At least one out of every five of the strangers I was connected to was a man with the camera pointed directly at his private parts. Within the first few seconds of using the site, I was asked: 'Do you show boobs?'
This was a man from Ibiza, who had angled the computer in such a way that all I could see was his clothed lap. He could have been anything from 17 to 70.
A man from Germany whose face was masked with a scarf asked if I would like to watch him fondle himself. Another told me in graphic terms what he would like me to do to him.
Apart from a sweet but banal conversation with a Spanish student who wanted to improve his English, and a courteous Turkish architect, most of the encounters I experienced left me feeling that I had become the unwitting participant in a porn film.
The ability to parachute into the lives of strangers is simultaneously addictive and repellent. Just like pornography, it leaves the user feeling dirty and ashamed.
Most of the people I encountered were foreign - and while their English was often poor, they knew the words required to fulfill one purpose: to persuade young girls and women to undress.
Chatroulette may have been invented by a child, but it's clearly not appropriate for children - and it's anything but a game.
But, thanks to celebrity users such as Paris Hilton and Ashton Kutcher, teenagers are flocking to the site.
Indeed, if you swiftly 'next' your way through your matches, you will find that around 50 per cent of users appear to be younger than 20.
The fact that my daughter and her friends are not shocked by the site is shocking in itself - it's a further indication that such aberrant behaviour has been normalised.
'If you don't like something, you just click "next",' my daughter blithely told me. It saddens me that she has grown up in a society that makes it possible for her to be so worldly and resigned at such a young age.
But she is not alone. Even more depressingly, it seems that - thanks to the internet - such sexualised behaviour is pervading all generations.
Just last week, a newspaper column related the story of a woman who had recently gone on a date with an unnamed parliamentary candidate. Their date went well, but - as the source revealed - the very next day she received an email containing a photograph of his genitals.
Shocking enough, but sadly not a unique occurrence. I have a number of middle-aged friends who are newly divorced or still single (sometimes still very married) and navigating the tricky minefield that is internet dating. They have found that conversations online all too quickly turn vulgar. And increasingly pornographic, too.
One told me of a man who, within minutes of meeting online, tried to engage her in dirty talk. Another had an online suitor who bombarded her with a series of naked pictures.
Of course, my friends did not participate. But one short afternoon on Chatroulette and you will find that there are a number of women who will. So what is it that is attracting so many modern men and women to such disturbing exhibitionism?
Dr Taly Weiss is a Jerusalem-based marketing trends researcher with a PhD in Social Psychology. She says that internet encounters, be they ones such as on Chatroulette or dating sites, or the sending of explicit photos, are about satisfying the feeling of excitement that comes when we are allowed inside private places and invite people into them too.
Chatroulette, in particular, where you are literally live in front of a total stranger, takes this to extremes.
I fear for what is going to happen next. For, when you think back to the creation of mobile phones, what started as a useful way of communicating quickly turned into sexting (sending explicit text messages).
Now, we face the worrying prospect that a growing number of men find it acceptable to expose themselves to strangers online - and the young girls watching them not only think it's normal, but some even agree to perform sex acts on themselves in return.
Will this soon become the perverted future of courtship?
Just think of the way that Ashley Cole threw away his marriage to Cheryl Cole by texting naked photos of himself to a stranger, before embarking on an alleged affair with her. 17-year-old Ashleigh Hall was raped and murdered by 26-year-old Peter Chapman, a man who had met and groomed her on Facebook.
Let us no longer pretend that this is all a 'bit of fun'. How long will it be before we hear of a similar Chatroulette tragedy?
Sarita Yardi, a PhD candidate at the Georgia Institute of Technology, is studying the role of technology in teenagers' lives. She says that the idea of showing your face to strangers violates almost all social norms of the offline world.
'If someone walked up to you at a cocktail party, stared at you intensely, then simply walked away, you would feel confused and probably offended,' she says.
She advises parents to think carefully about what material is socially appropriate for their child and to weigh up the risks and rewards. 'It's like an online Lord Of The Flies,' she says.
'There are too many unacceptable cultural and moral boundaries that are crossed - like random and unpredictable exposure to nakedness - for it to persist in its present state. This brings up interesting questions of governance.' Indeed it does.
The startling lack of internet controls has been a cause of anxiety for parents for some time.
While users of other social networking sites are urged to check the identities of those they talk to, Chatroulette aficionados socially enter into conversation with random strangers who remain entirely anonymous.
'The fact that my daughter and her friends are not shocked by the site is shocking in itself'
Our children live in an age where the internet is all that they've ever known and they have access to all manner of images and information that we, as children, were not exposed to.
According to a recent Home Office report on the Sexualisation of Young People, 99 per cent of eight to 17-year-olds have access to the internet and 60 per cent of 12 to 15-year-olds say that they mostly use it on their own.
The study found that 49 per cent of children aged eight to 17 have an online profile on sites such as Bebo, MySpace and Facebook and that girls report being under increasing pressure to display themselves in their underwear online.
Almost half of them say that their parents set no rules for the use of such sites. Chatroulette has taken social networking to the next level and provides a perfect forum for men to prey on vulnerable girls and women.
The images I encountered were shockingly pornographic, and it disturbs me profoundly to think that my 16-year-old has been exposed to them, even if she does have the street smarts to move swiftly on if she encounters anything unseemly.
The site is little more than a haven for exhibitionists and voyeurs.
It's not a game, it's porn, and pornography is addictive, corrosive and promotes unhealthy sexual stereotypes and behaviour for girls and boys. It undermines dignity and respect for others by making sexual intimacy into little more than a spectator sport without love, commitment or responsibility.
Depressingly, the business world has been quick to exploit the opportunities of this viral site, now worth an estimated £30 million, which has spread like bushfire around the world.
Fred Wilson, a New York-based venture capitalist with Union Square Ventures who has invested in dozens of dotcom companies, including Twitter, states on his blog: 'The internet is this huge network with over a billion people worldwide on it.
'Chatroulette feels like a cool way to take a quick trip around that network, meeting people and talking to them.'
But while the site's founder claims he built it so he and his friends could start doing things together online, like watching movies or making things, those aims have quickly been subverted.
And, as I discovered during my short venture into that world, it's yet another example of the pernicious sexual culture that threatens to corrupt the fibre of our children's innocence.