Live streaming sites such as Periscope and Live.ly (of Musical.ly fame) are big news, and becoming increasingly popular. Periscope has only been around in the mainstream a little over a year and as of March this year had broadcast 200 million streams, by now that is likely much higher, perhaps over 300 million already.
Despite the popularity and polished appearance there is a darker side to live streaming sites, one that the service operators are struggling to keep under control.
What is live streaming?
For the uninitiated live streaming sites like Periscope and Live.ly allow users to live broadcast themselves from their smart phones to anyone who wants to watch, like your own little personal TV show.
Some streams could have thousands or even tens of thousands of viewers at any one time. Viewers of the show can then comment to the stream and often share virtual tokens of appreciation like love hearts and other virtual items.
The large majority of streams are people in their bedrooms or living rooms talking about their lives, painting their nails, watching a movie, or perhaps a group of friends simply being silly in front of an audience.
The dark side of Periscope and Live.ly
With live streaming services such as Periscope and Live.ly there is a perfect storm for danger. The ability to live video broadcast to tens of thousands of anonymous people from the privacy of your own home in a virtually unmoderated service.
There are of course a wide range of broadcasts to choose from at any one time, but the most common broadcasts are by the younger generation, girls in their early to mid teens in particular.
The danger here is obvious, younger girls broadcasting themselves to an anonymous audience in every corner of the world. And the danger is more than just hypothetical, spend 5 minutes on any stream of a teenage (or younger) girl and you will see countless demands and invitations for her to expose herself or perform some sexual act. Often these demands are very persistent and in slang unique to live streaming sites such as “open chest” in order to avoid automated moderation.
What is most shocking about live streaming sites is the prevalence and persistence of what essentially amounts to (attempted) sexual abuse of children. Literally any stream with a girl will at some point have someone demand something inappropriate and most likely of a sexual nature. Even in streams where the broadcaster has expressly stated their age, the requests will keep on coming.
Whilst researching for this blog one girl who was broadcasting alone from her bedroom late at night (In whispered tones so as not to wake her parents) repeatedly stated she was 11 years old and yet was persistently harassed to remove her top and perform other acts. She kept blocking all those who asked, but it was almost a full time occupation blocking the predators for her.
Self moderation and blocking
When viewing a stream there is of course some moderation, the streaming service will identify comments to the stream that are likely inappropriate. In the case of Periscope the app will then ask other viewers of the stream whether that comment is ok or not.
The problem of course is if you ask a room of predators whether a predatory comment is ok, then the majority will click the “Look’s OK” button and the comment is broadcast.
Broadcasters and users do have tools at their disposal to protect themselves, comments in the stream can be reported as abusive, the broadcaster themselves can report users, and if they choose they can block a user entirely from the stream.
One could argue that being able to block users has indeed solved the problem, the issue here though is not only the predation of young girls, but the prevalence and persistence of the problem. During a broadcast a girl could almost be spending the entire time blocking people. And once blocked that doesn’t change the fact that a young girl is still being pressured to perform sexual acts on a live video stream. This is a question of helping children learn what is normal and safe, and what is not. Constant bombardment and pressure may well desensitise girls over time who may become more accepting of the behaviour, worst case those girls may eventually capitulate to the demands of their predatory viewers.
Surprise NSFW streams
Another problem is that inevitably there is the odd broadcast (although seemingly quite rare) where someone is deliberately choosing to broadcast themselves doing inappropriate things. Often these streams have large numbers of views and are poorly described and so an unsuspecting user might be tempted to view the stream because it is clearly so popular only to be confronted with someone performing a sexual act or exposing themselves.
Of course you can simply quit the broadcast and report the user, but potentially a young person using the app has still been exposed to that content, however briefly.
Should I block my children from Periscope and Live.ly?
When deciding whether to block any type of social networking you have to weigh up the risk to the child vs the social impact of your child not being able to interact with their friends via that particular form of social networking. No child wants to say “Sorry I can’t, my parents say I’m not allowed” - but ultimately the child’s safety comes first.
It would be a good idea to use the live streaming service for a while, browse some streams, see what other people experience and then decide whether you are comfortable with your child having that same experience.
How to block Periscope and Live.ly
If you decide to go ahead and block Periscope and Live.ly then it is actually relatively simple to do. Most ISPs (this blog is written in the UK so based on UK experience) offer web filtering, most have it enabled by default. In addition there is often the option to customise those settings to add or remove particular categories.
Block the social networking category - Blocking the social networking category entirely in your ISP filtering settings will most likely prevent the streaming apps from working, children may be able to install the app but it wouldn’t work. This however will also block Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other less risky social networks that you may be fine with.
Block the specific websites - This is a more precise option, you can generally add specific URLs to blocking lists your ISP uses for your connection, add the following two URLs to effectively block Periscope and Live.ly
Block the application itself -Depending on what smart phone or tablet your child is using it may be possible to use parental controls on the phone or app store itself to prevent them even installing the app.
What about Musical.ly?
Musical.ly is another interesting service, it allows users to film themselves in home made music videos. Unlike Periscope and Live.ly however it is less interactive, people can comment on a video once shared, but it isn’t real time interaction back and forth so the risk is somewhat different and likely much lower.
That said, Musical.ly does facilitate people dancing to music videos, and some original music videos can be pretty explicit, would you want your child mimicking that video themselves?
It's worth noting that the blocks described here to block Live.ly may well block Musical.ly anyway as they likely share some infrastructure and CDN.
Many of these applications offer privacy controls, in Periscope for example users can set a stream to be private so only followers are able to view the stream, this obviously minimises the risk. However, these controls rely on the user (in the context of this blog, a child) to always use those privacy controls.
Another important note is that whilst this blog has focussed very much on the exploitation of young girls, young boys are equally at risk. It is seemingly less common but that may well be because the apps are simply more popular amongst girls compared to boys.
Credit to bewytchme.com (http://bewytchme.com/periscope-not-safe-children/) for the screen shot used in this blog, and most importantly for also writing about what a danger Periscope is.