Anonymity is a strange, powerful thing. The anonymous nature of chat rooms tends to inspire exaggerated behavior in otherwise normal, respectful people. One commentator calls chat rooms "safety valves" for strong emotions, opinions and urges that most people can't, or wouldn't want to express in real life [source: The Industry Standard].
This type of behavior manifests itself in different ways. Chat rooms have always been popular spots for flirting with the opposite sex. One of the unfortunate realities of chat rooms is that sexual talk -- sometimes harmless, sometimes explicit -- often appears in rooms that have nothing to do with dating, sex or relationships. If you're going to spend a lot of time in chat rooms, you have to learn to ignore all the noise and concentrate on your own conversations.
The anonymity of chat rooms also encourages people to share unabashed opinions. People tend to state their thoughts and opinions more emphatically in chat rooms than they would ever dare in real life. Like message boards, chat rooms are popular spots for so-called flame wars in which two or more users enter into a tirade of insults sparked by a minor disagreement.
But these same factors can also work in your favor. For example, if you're looking for honest advice about a personal problem, a chat room could be a great place to go. You'll feel more comfortable sharing the details of your problem, because nobody knows you. And chances are you'll receive frank, empathetic opinions from the other chat room members, especially if you search out rooms that are built around a certain problem or issue.
Chat rooms are also great places to try out new identities and personalities. Teens, in particular, are drawn to chat rooms, because they allow them to experiment with different selves.
Over the years, there have been several high-profile news stories concerning adults who have masqueraded as teenagers in chat rooms in order to lure teens into real-life sexual encounters. There's even a popular television segment on Dateline NBC called "To Catch a Predator", which uses fake teen chatters as bait [source: MSNBC]. According to a recent study in the journal Pediatrics, 15 percent of 10 to 15-year-olds received an "unwanted sexual solicitation online" in 2007 [source: Ars Technica].
There are some general tips and guidelines for chatting safely. First of all, many chat sites are exclusively for chatters who are 18 or older. Teens should congregate on sites and services designed for the exclusive use of younger chatters. The next most important thing is choosing your nickname or user ID. Don't include any personal information in your nickname, like your actual name or where you go to school. And don't include any of that information in a personal profile on a chat site, even if it seems like an appropriate place to do so.
Another general rule for chat room safety is to avoid sharing any personal information in the context of a chat session. Even if someone asks you directly, don't share information about where you live, your phone number, your real name or the names of family members. But the most important rule of all, especially for younger chatters, is never to arrange to meet with someone in real life who you only know from a chat room.
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