Teens and Online Flirting: ‘Skout’ing’ for Disaster

Can teens be protected on chat site popular with kids and predators?
A police officer in Florida's Child Predator CyberCrime Unit talks with a potential predator on instant messenger. (Photo: Getty Images)
Jun 15, 2012· 2 MIN READ
Originally from Baltimore, Oliver lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn.

If recent news is any indication, the Internet is a treacherous place for teenagers looking for love. Last month, a 41-year-old Atlanta man was arrested for raping and impregnating a 15-year-old girl he met on Facebook, where he was posing as a 25-year-old.

Around the same time, a 45-year-old New Zealand man convinced a 13-year-old he met on Twitter to play hooky from school, raping her when she invited him to her parent’s house.

The victims, two girls, ages 12 and 15, and a 13-year-old boy, were all lured by men posing as teenagers on the site.

It’s not just adults taking advantage of teens, either—in 2010, 19-year-old Anthony Stancl was sentenced to 15 years for blackmailing more than 30 of his male classmates into having sex with him.

This week, The New York Times reported the latest atrocity: three teenagers that were allegedly raped by adults they’d met on Skout, a social networking site that promises users will be able to “flirt, friend, and chat” with millions of users. The victims, two girls, ages 12 and 15, and a 13-year-old boy, were all lured by men posing as teenagers on the site.

Skout cofounder Christian Wiklund told the Times on Monday: “I’m disgusted by what’s happened here. One case is too many. When you have three, it looks like a pattern. This is my worst fear.”

Last year, after realizing that a growing percentage of new users were between the ages of 13 and 17, Skout opened a teen version of its site. According to a recent profile by the Wall Street Journal, 15 percent of Skout’s monthly active users are between the ages of 13 and 17.

Upon learning of the rape allegations, Skout immediately shut down the teen site. A spokesman said that the site wouldn’t reopen until safety could be assured for all members.

But is assured safety realistic, or even possible?

Skout did take measures to protect teens who were using its application. The GPS locator never gave specific coordinates, and according to Wiklund, a quarter of the company’s 75-member staff monitored the community for illicit behavior.

A program called “the creepinator” monitored for nude photos and explicit or sexual chats. Skout’s efforts are comparable to those of other companies that are promoting teen safety—one, WiredTrust, rents out its 65 moderators to troll for predators online and sells a program that points out suspicious users by examining age differences between them and any teens they might befriend.

Teens, even more so than children, are uniquely vulnerable to online temptation. In the adolescent brain, emotions trump self-control, and studies show that teenagers haven’t yet developed the part of their brain that can understand consequences.

From posting incriminating photos to enticing criminals with photos of cash, adolescents are notorious for errors in online judgment. Flirting with strangers is no different. With ’tweens wielding more personal devices than ever, parental controls are becoming less effective.

One key, perhaps, is moderation. A Swiss study looking at more than 7,200 teenagers between 16 and 20 found that those who spent the most time and the least time on the Internet were more likley to be depressed or very depressed, relative to “regular” Internet users. According to researchers, heavy Internet use is seen as anything over two hours a day. Considering that the average U.S. teenager spends 31 hours a week online, many might be vulnerable to inappropriate propositions.

Skout, to its credit, seems to be taking the matter seriously. Cofounder Christian Wiklund, who learned of the abuse through local news outlets, called authorities immediately afterward to aid in the investigation. An investor called the incidents a “five-alarm fire.” According to sources close to the company, it is considering shuttering the teen site for good. Which might be the best move for everyone involved.

Would you allow your teenager to use flirting apps? Let us know in the COMMENTS.

Oliver Lee has been covering social justice and other issues for TakePart since 2009. Originally from Baltimore, he lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn. Email Oliver | @oliverung