Chat sites like Omegle, which allow users to talk to strangers online, present a challenge for any parent trying to protect their children from predators. A new app/service called Emerald Chat is now positioning itself as an alternative — but is Emerald Chat safe?
The platform’s involvement in a recent child abduction case could indicate danger for young users.
What Is Emerald Chat?
Like Omegle, Emerald Chat is a service for randomly connecting web users from around the world to chat. There is no way to get an app version from the Google or Android app stores, but there are workarounds that let you download it to your phone. So kids can be using the service without a computer. (We won’t post the “how to” here for obvious reasons.)
The service is ostensibly for users 18 and older, and users are prompted to confirm their age before logging on. However, in Parentology‘s review of the app, we were unable to find any other way of verifying a user’s age — same with Omegle.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Emerald Chat did not respond to Parentology’s request for an interview.]
Emerald Chat forces you to create an account if you want to use the full service, which is the first barrier to entry if a young person is worried about getting caught. Once on the site, users have the option of a one-on-one text chat, a video chat, or a group text chat. The service can pair users based on matching interests. It also lets you filter which gender you’d prefer to chat with, but only if you spring for Emerald Gold for $3.89 per month — a second barrier if you’re a minor because you need a credit or ATM card to activate it.
Is Emerald Chat Safe?
That depends on your definition of “safe.”
After selecting which chat function you want to use, there’s no real moderation. One-on-one texting or video can be as explicit as the users want. In the non-Emerald Gold section of the video chat, we didn’t find any blatant sexual behavior happening. There were some people in darkly lit “moody” settings — and some shirtless guys — but we also didn’t encourage it with the people we met.
However, if the group chat feature is any indication, then users aren’t holding back. It functions similarly to old-school AOL chat rooms with scrolling commentary, and after exploring the section Parentology quickly found a thread rife with sexual language — a violation of the app’s rules.
Users of the platform can give other users positive or negative karma scores based on their interactions, which form the basis of the site’s AI-powered moderation. Users who receive consistently low karma scores may find themselves automatically banned for a temporary period.
If a user is being abusive on the app, the site’s “Help” section simply recommends giving them a negative karma score. In theory, if enough users give an abuser a low score, they will be automatically — but only temporarily — banned.
The site also has a team of “active mods” who have the ability to ban users who don’t adhere to the rules.
Still, there’s nothing to stop someone under 18 from simply clicking the verification button and enjoying all that the app has to offer.
A Tool For Predators?
This lack of strict age verification was a major factor in a harrowing abduction case that unfolded earlier this year.
Fourteen-year-old Savannah Childress disappeared from her home in North Carolina on February 11. In the ensuing investigation, police discovered she had been using her school-issued laptop to communicate with an adult man on several platforms, including Emerald Chat.
By speaking to other young girls the man had contacted, authorities identified him as 38-year-old William Ice. County officials confirmed that Ice had been holding sexually explicit conversations with Childress on Emerald Chat prior to the kidnapping.
Thankfully, police were able to safely recover Childress on February 20 after tracking down Ice’s car. The kidnapper took his own life during a subsequent gunfight.
“She’s definitely traumatized and has a long road ahead of her to recover from this,” said Sergeant David Blake of the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office.
In the wake of the troubling incident, authorities are urging parents to keep a closer eye at communication apps like Emerald.
“There needs to be more monitoring, constant monitoring both on how the devices are being used and if all the devices in the household provide a safe venue for learning,” said Cesar Pinto, a professor at Old Dominion University.
When asked what parents should take away from the case, Davidson County Sheriff Richie Simmons recommended getting to know the chat apps on their kids’ phones.
“I would encourage all parents to encourage their children, if you can’t text them from your cell phone, then don’t communicate with them,” Simmons said. “That would just be the biggest lesson, I think we all could really look at the apps on our children’s phone.”