Lessons from the Sexual Assaults of Kids Tied to the Social App Skout

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
June 13 2012 12:27 PM

Stranger Danger on the Social App Skout

Teenage girls using laptops
Teenage girls using laptops

Photo by YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images

Stranger danger from pedophiles is rare on the Internet, but rare isn't the same as never. And seemingly safe spaces can turn creepy where kids are involved, even when they take precautions. That's the unfortunate, creepy lesson of the NYT's story by Nicole Perlroth on three child rapes linked to the social app Skout.

Emily Bazelon Emily Bazelon

Emily Bazelon is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine and the author of Sticks and Stones

Perlroth reports that three kids, a 15-year-old girl in Ohio, a 12-year-old girl in California, and a 13-year-old boy in Wisconsin, say they were raped or sexually assaulted by adult men they met on Skout, a social app for flirting and meeting. Skout started a separate service for teens, ages 13 to 17, after realizing that minors were using the app. And it was trying to safeguard the kids who signed up, according to its founder, Christian Wiklund:

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"Mr. Wiklund said the app for minors was designed with safeguards like parental controls. The GPS location feature is an opt-in and it never shows a user’s location with greater accuracy than half a mile. He said a quarter of the company’s 75-member staff monitored the community for illicit behavior. It also uses machine-learning technology—which it calls “the creepinator —to monitor photos for nudity and check chats for inappropriate sexual messages, profanity, spamming, copyright infringement and violent behavior. Mr. Wiklund said Skout removed “tens of thousands of devices a month” from the service."

The pedophiles accused of rape and sexual assault in these three cases got access to the kids anyway. And so, Perlroth writes:

The cases raise larger questions about the safety of social networking apps and sites, which often forbid minors from using them or sequester them from adult users. But those sites find it nearly impossible to control who goes where. In Skout’s case, a majority of its users sign in through Facebook, which officially forbids members under the age of 13. Facebook has acknowledged that younger children still find ways onto the site. It said last week that it was fine-tuning controls that would allow children under 13 to join the service.

Here's a social app that was trying to protect kids, and yet in these cases, failed to. The kids got to the app through Facebook. That doesn't make any of this Facebook's fault. But it does give me one more reason to question the wisdom of letting kids under the age of 13 sign up for Facebook. I didn't even mention stranger danger when I wrote about this last week, because exaggerating the dimensions of this rare problem is a bad idea. But the thing about rape and sexual assault is that however rare, they are obviously devastating. And now I have to point out that the precautions Skout was taking—parental controls and monitoring—are precisely what Facebook has proposed for its potential under-13 feature. I just don't see how safeguards like these could ever be foolproof or even close to it.

Skout has suspended its flirting service for teenagers. Maybe that's just the latest in a game of Whac-A-Mole, because the pedophiles will go elsewhere. But we have to keep trying, right?

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