6497720551_79c434a2a0Teenagers are increasingly using smartphone-messaging apps to connect with friends, moving away from regular texting that is often limited and monitored by their parents. These apps provide them with unlimited, free texting that is often anonymous and can be used without parental controls. At first glance, it may seem like an innocent way to connect with friends. But after a popular messaging app called Kik was linked to the death of 13-year-old Nicole Madison Lovell, law enforcement officials are urging parents to take steps to protect their children.

Kik is wildly popular, with nearly 40% of American teens using the app. Joining Kik is simple. Once the user picks out their username, they can find their friends by searching their username or use one of many internal apps that can connect them to strangers. Some of the apps are strictly romantic. For example, Flirt! gives users a list of users in their age range to, as it’s name suggests, flirt with. Others are breeding ground for trouble. For example, games such as Truth or Dare and RolePlay are often used for sexual activity.

Connecting with strangers online isn’t anything new. But what makes Kik unique is the anonymous nature of the app. The app asks the user for their real name and email but works with a fake name and does not require a phone number. Essentially, users who can be whoever they want.

Kik’s appeal extends beyond teenagers, and is catching the attention of sexual predators who use the app to commit crimes. Because of the anonymous nature of the app, a sexual predator can join as a teenage boy and find potential victims through one of the internal apps without leaving a trace. This isn’t just a prediction; just a few weeks ago, a man was caught posing as a teenager on Kik and sending inappropriate sexual messages to a minor.

Law enforcement agents are warning that they routinely find cases of “sextortion” on the app, in which a sexual predator encourages a young person to send a pornographic photo of themselves and then, upon receiving the message, threatens to post the picture online or harm the child and their family unless more sexual photos are sent.

Predators also try to arrange meetings with potential victims with Kik. When they’re successful, these meetings can be fatal. In November, a 15-year-old Ohio girl got into a car with a 41-year-old male predator who posed as a 20-year-old on Kik. He drove 500 miles away from her home to Missouri, where she was held captive and abused for nearly a month until authorities found her.

Law enforcement officials say that Kik goes father than most other apps to shield data and protect user privacy. Because of this, the information that law enforcement can get from Kik, even with a subpoena, is extremely limited. According to Kik’s Law Enforcement Guide, Kik can not access messages between users, and photos and videos are deleted a short time after being sent. With a court order, the app can provide law enforcement with a time log of the incoming and outgoing messages, and can sometimes provide the user’s IP address. But because Kik is based in Canada, the process to get information is slowed down, as requests for information have to go through the United States Justice

Federal law prohibits websites from collecting personal information from children under 13 years old. In order to create a Kik account, the user must enter a birthdate that indicates they’re at least 13 years old. But since the user can easily enter a fake birthdate, there’s no way to ensure that Kik isn’t collecting information on children in defiance of the law.

While there aren’t any laws preventing apps like Kik from existing, there are a number of steps that parents can take to protect their children. Experts say that parents should make clear that they can and will routinely monitor their children’s phone. In addition, parents should suggest that their children use Facebook messenger instead of Kik because Facebook requires users to use their real name. There are also a number of online resource guides that can provide parents with the tools and resources to ensure that their children are safe online. We recommend checking out Family Online Safety Institute’s tips on good digital parenting to get started.

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