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Online chat and video chat

Online chat and video chat have become everyday tools to help us stay in contact with people we know and make new connections.

Some social media have chat options, like Facebook Messenger and Snapchat. There are also lots of other options, including private messaging apps like WhatsApp, gaming and dating sites that have their own chat functions, and phone services that allow you to send texts, images and videos.

Whatever you use there are some risks, so it’s good to know some tips for staying safe and getting help if you experience online abuse.

On this page:

What is online chat and messaging?

Online chat and messaging apps can help people stay connected, whether they are next door or on the other side of the world. They can give you the opportunity to meet new people, make friends and collaborate with colleagues from anywhere while you are online.

A messaging or online chat platform lets us communicate online in real-time so we can share texts, photos, videos and other types of files. These platforms help us to talk and respond quickly, similar to a spoken word conversation. The communication can be:

  • one-on-one or among a group of people
  • between people who are known to one another
  • or between strangers.

Depending on the online service or platform you’re using, and how you have adjusted your account settings, the messages or chat history may be publicly available online.

There are lots of different functions available in these apps and online services, such as video and voice chat, photo and video sharing and location sharing.

What is video chat?

Video chat uses your device’s camera and screen to call and see the person you are talking with – and, unlike live streaming, the other person can see you and talk too.

You can also use the voice chat function to let people talk in real time to each other (without a camera) over the internet, by accessing the speakers and microphone in your device – the same way that you use your phone.

Video and voice chat functions may be available in:

  • phone services and online calling services
  • audio conferencing services used by a person or business, such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Meet
  • specialist apps used by online gamers, such as Discord
  • social media and dating apps.

Multiple participants

Many online platforms have the option to conference call or chat with multiple participants. These participants can have different roles such as ‘host’, ‘presenter’ or ‘guest’. The roles tell you whether you can speak or just listen at certain times, as well as who gets to control the call.

Other features can include sharing your device’s screen with others in the call, and being able to ask questions and make comments by talking, in text-chat or as a recording that the host can play back.

Some of these services are aimed at a broad audience and come standard with the operating system on your device, while others are targeted at specific markets, such as the voice chat and video chat platforms used by online gamers.

The benefits of online chat and video chat

Staying in contact with family and friends

There are both free and paid online and video chat services available, so you can stay in touch with friends and family around the world – without the expense of long distance phone calls. Some online platforms have the option for conferencing functionality, meaning you can chat and video call with a group of people at once, rather than calling each person separately.

Video chat can also make the communication experience feel more real, since you can see each other’s reactions in real time. It also gives you the chance to see what the other person looks like, what they’re doing and where they are – unless they use a virtual background or filters that alter their appearance.

Sharing your location

Many social media and chat apps have location-based services, which let you share your physical location with other people. This is usually done by turning on the location sharing function in your device or app settings. You can also use this function to ‘check-in’ from a location so that others know where you are.

On some social media apps, the location-based functions are turned on by default. You can adjust and review your privacy settings on these platforms to block this function, or to limit who sees your location-based information.

Read more about how to manage your digital safety settings

Being part of a gaming team

Online, video and voice chat are an important part of online gaming. You can team up with other gamers as you go into combat together or explore new worlds. Communicating in real time can help you talk about strategy and connect with other players in your team.

Learn more about gaming.

Working with colleagues

Online and video chat has become common in the workplace. You can have a meeting using online conferencing platforms to catch up with colleagues wherever they are, whether that’s the same building or somewhere in a different time zone. These technologies let people work remotely – away from the office – and remain connected to their colleagues.

Online learning

Video chat has also become common in schooling and other types of education. It allows students to join classrooms and study groups, learning and working on projects together without having to be in the same place.

The risks of online chat and video chat

Online bullying and other types of abuse

Not everyone is respectful online. There is a risk that you could be bullied or abused in other ways while using online chat or video calling services. This can be especially difficult to deal with if you don’t know the person or their profile is anonymous.

Read more about cyberbullying and adult cyber abuse to find out how to manage the impacts if this happens to you or someone you know.

‘Sextortion’ and other types of image-based abuse

Sharing an intimate image or video without the consent of the person shown is a type of image-based abuse and is illegal. Threatening to share it is also illegal. Even if you are using a private messaging service, someone may share your messages or images without your consent.

If you are involved in sexual activity during a video chat, the call could be recorded without you knowing by taking a screen capture (‘capping’), then shared without your consent. For example, an ex-partner could upload the video to a public online page, or a scammer could try to blackmail you for money or more nudes by threatening to share a recording of the call with your contacts.

Learn more about image-based abuse and how to deal with sexual extortion.

Unwanted contact or contact from strangers

Unwanted contact is any type of online communication that makes you feel uncomfortable, unsafe or harassed. It can be with a stranger or someone you know. You may actually welcome the contact at first, until the other person says or does something you don't like.

Online chat and video calls make it easy to contact you, or drop in on your group. You could receive unwanted contact from people if you don’t have privacy settings on. While you can usually block these callers, they might try to call you again from a different account or using another service. When using video calling, details in your background could unintentionally share your location.

Make sure you are careful about how well you really know your online ‘friends’. It’s easy for people to lie online, including those who trick children and young people into thinking they’re in a close relationship.

Look out for things that don’t add up – for example, if someone says, ‘my webcam is broken’, this may indicate that they are trying to scam, deceive or catfish you with a fake profile.

Another example might be a user whose online profile is not consistent with what you see and hear when you talk or chat with them.

Learn more about unwanted or unsafe contact, identity theft, catfishing, cyberstalking and online scams.

Impacts on your digital reputation

Photos from a party might be OK for close friends to see but you might not feel comfortable if they are shared more widely. Think before you share something and ask yourself, would you want anyone to see this in five years’ time?

Be aware that any type of online or video chat you have with someone could be recorded using screen capture (‘capping’) techniques, then shared with others. Remember that once a message, photo or video has been shared online, you may not be able to control where it goes or how long it stays online.

Learn more about your digital reputation and how your digital footprint is created by all the things you say and do online.

Sharing too much personally identifiable information

Your personally identifiable information is any information, or ‘data’, that helps to identify you or how to find you – like your address, phone number or account login details. If you share a lot of this information online, it might be used inappropriately by other people and put you at risk of having your identity stolen or being doxed – this is when someone shares your personally identifiable information without your consent, on purpose.

You can make different types of personal information on your social media accounts private so that only certain people or friends can see these details.

There might be situations where you need to have a public profile, such as for work or to interact with a celebrity – remember, you have the option to switch between private and public profiles across many social media platforms. Take a look at The eSafety Guide for information about how to update your privacy settings across online platforms and apps, including common ones like Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and X (formerly Twitter).

Learn more about identity theft, doxing and how to manage your digital safety settings.

More information

Visit The eSafety Guide to find out more about specific online services, platforms and games that use online chat and video chat, including how to change your settings and how to report abuse in-app. 

eSafety also has legal powers to help people who live in Australia by removing the most serious online abuse and harmful content.

Last updated: 26/03/2024