When you go to download Skout on an iPhone, the tagline is "flirt, friend, chat," and you're invited to "join the fastest growing FREE social scene with millions of guys and girls waiting to meet you!" Skout's iPhone icon is a heart. And, thanks to the phone's location awareness, you can even find people who are nearby.
There is nothing wrong with services like this as long as they're used with appropriate safeguards, and Skout does offer safety tips for meeting people offline. But there have been three reported cases of teenage users being raped by adults -- posing online as teenagers -- who found them on Skout.
After the reports surfaced, the service quickly suspended its teen services and now, for the time being at least, it's only open to people over 18. In a blog post, Skout CEO Christian Wiklund wrote "Under our zero-tolerance policy, we immediately ban users for inappropriate or suspicious behavior. Also, unlike many location-based apps, Skout provides general rather than specific location information, empowering each community member to decide if, when and where to meet in person."
But he added, "it's become clear to us that these measures aren't enough. In recent weeks, we've learned of several incidents involving a few bad actors trying to take advantage of some of our younger members."
Skout was initially set up for adults only but added teens about a year ago. Wiklund wrote that "we thought long and hard about how to set up a safe network for teens," which included efforts to separate teens from adults on the service.
That strategy hasn't been entirely effective. Some adults have apparently lied about their age to hang out with kids and it wouldn't surprise me if some kids lie about their age.
I don't know a great deal about Skout, but as founder of SafeKids.com and co-director of ConnectSafely.org, I do know a few things about Internet safety. And one of them, as noted by Crimes Against Children Research Center (CRCC), is that "talking about sex online with strangers is a big risk factor for encountering problems," as is "interacting indiscriminately with a lot of unknown people online."
Research has also shown that adults sexually abusing children they first met online is relatively rare and that, in most cases, adults don't lie about their age or, if they do, it's by a few years. Although it happens, it's rare for a 40 year-old to claim to be a 16 or 17 year old. We have also learned, from several studies, that aggressive behavior can lead to risk. When there are issues, they often arise when young people are going out of their way to engage in online sexual banter with strangers.
According to CRCC Director David Finkelhor, "even if an adult does show up at a teen site to troll for kids, the adults typically clarify their age at some point in the conversation." Finkelhor stressed that "An important component of safety messages should be to help teens understand why it's a bad idea to have a romantic relationship with an adult."
Talking about sex with strangers
It's important to remember that Skout is designed for flirting, which is often accompanied by sexual banter. So, without knowing a lot of details of the reported cases, I can nevertheless see why there could have been problems associated with this service.
It's not clear to me how Skout's location-aware features may have contributed to the alleged crimes. On its website, Skout says that it "provides general rather than specific location information" which should minimize the risk of a stranger actually tracking you down. Still, as a general principal, when you combine location awareness with sexual conversation, the risk does increase.
Skout was smart to suspend services for teens, but there remains the possibility that some teens will lie about their age to join this and similar services. Finkelhor questions whether Skout should resume its offering for teens.
"If we're going to have teen dating sites, they should be designed and managed by people who do only that and (should) be connected to functions other than just hooking up," he said.
But it's not entirely clear that trying to separate teens from adults is a good strategy. Kids are more often harassed by other young people and, with the exception of flirting services, there could be legitimate reasons for kids and adults to interact online around topics of common interest.
Don't overreact or generalize
While caution is always wise, it's important that parents not freak out, overreact or generalize what happened on Skout to other social networking services like Facebook or Twitter. According to Pew Research, about 75 percent of American teens are on Facebook, yet the number of reports of Facebook-related sexual abuse of teens and children are extremely low. But, once again, it's time for parents to sit down with their kids and have "that talk," not about the "birds and the bees," but about the "bits and the bytes," helping them understand how to safely use the Internet and mobile phones.
This article first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News.