Are Teen Flirting Sites Safe? The Skout Experiment Provides a Cautionary Tale

Posted in: Consumer Law

It sounds like an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit: Three teens are allegedly raped or sexually exploited after meeting adults on a “teens only” flirting site.  Unfortunately, this story appears to be true.  And as a result, last week, Skout—a company that provides both adult-only and teen-only “flirting” sites—announced that, for now at least, it was shelving its teen app in light of the allegations.

In this column, I will discuss the Skout situation as an example of the potential dangers of adults’ entering teen-only realms and masquerading as teens.  While such sites need to exercise vigilance—as Skout apparently did—they may also need to cooperate more actively with law enforcement in order to prevent such activity from occurring.

In the end, it may be the case that teen sites that are focused explicitly on dating and sexual relations will continually be magnets for illegal and predatory behavior by adults.  If so, then law enforcement, social-media entrepreneurs, and parents all may need to think about ways to discourage such business models.

Skout’s Teen App

Skout offers a mobile app and social-media platform that allows people to meet up.  Its webpage states, “Life is short, you are busy and people are having fun without you right now. So start Skouting and find your party, anytime, anywhere.” The site has also been billed as an online flirting site.  (Flirting via one’s mobile device means exchanging photos, chatting, and if others’ locations are nearby, possibly meeting up with them in order to hook up with a fellow Skout user.)

The company that invented Skout is a San Francisco-based startup that bills itself as a mobile service for people who want to meet others who are interested in chatting, networking, or flirting.  This April, Skout received its first round of outside funding, receiving a reported $22 million in venture capital.

Skout initially offered a location-based social networking site, but transitioned   two years ago to focus on mobile flirting and meeting up.  Last year, Skout created a separate and supposedly age-segregated service for teens aged 13 to 17, after realizing   that many youngsters were already using the mobile app.

Many people access the Skout app through Facebook, although Facebook and Skout are independent companies.  (Facebook does not allow users under 13, but it has been studying ways to safely let younger users onto its network, since new studies show that many kids under 13 already have accounts on Facebook by lying about their ages.)

Skout markets its mobile app as “one of the largest mobile networks for meeting new people.” Last year, the company designed its under-18 group app, to help teens meet new people and flirt.

Why did Skout create its teen app and site?  Given the numbers, it seemed to make sense.  According to The Wall Street Journal, more than 15 % of Skout’s users, in a recent count, fell between the ages of 13 and 17.  (Under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), even thirteen-year-olds can access an adult chat site if their parents consent.)  But what was meant to be a place for 13-to-17-year-olds to find a date with fellow teens nearby has now turned into a scary tale. Three adult men have been accused of raping children whom they met using the Skout app, according to The New York Times.

All three-rape cases involve adult men passing themselves off as teenagers in Skout’s teen-only forum, according to the Times.  In one case, a 24-year-old man allegedly raped a 12-year-old California girl. In a second instance case, a 15-year-old Ohio girl has accused a 37-year-old man of rape.  And in the third, a 13-year-old boy accused a 21-year-old Wisconsin man of sexual assault. In at least one instance, there may have been an exchange of nude photos.

Skout’s Precautions, and Its Current Decision to Suspend Its Teen Community Indefinitely

As a result of these incidents, Skout founder and CEO Christian Wiklund announced in a blog post to his teen users that Skout’s teen community would be indefinitely suspended,

Citing safety as a number one priority, Wiklund said that, about a year ago, Skout had noticed a number of underage users entering its adult’s only  community, which prompted Skout to build its teen only app..  At that time, Skout took measures to protect teens who were using its app:  Its GPS locator never revealed a user’s specific coordinates—just general location information, and according to Wiklund, a quarter of the company’s 75-member staff monitored the teen Skout community for illicit behavior.  Moreover, a software program called “the creepinator” monitored the teen Skout community for nude photos and explicit or sexual chats.

Skout’s efforts were comparable to those of other companies that promote teen safety.  For instance, Wired Trust hires out its moderators to search for illegal activity and predators online, and offers back end technological solutions for companies that can pinpoint suspicious users or activities—reportedly by examining the age differences between them and any teens whom they might befriend.

Skout announced its decision to end its teen app recently, in a blog post.  The company also described its ongoing vigilance in trying to keep malicious adults outside of its teen circle: “We deploy advanced, proprietary technology that continuously monitors activity on the network to identify users whose behavior appears unusual, inappropriate or suspicious.  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 at the end of the day, Skout reasoned, “[I]t’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.”

Until the Skout staff can design better protections, Wiklund said, the under-18 community will be closed.  There is no word on when the teen ban will be lifted, though the CEO said he hopes it will be back online “soon.”

If Skout Can’t Keep Predators Out, What Sites Can?

The incidents related to Skout highlight widespread and important concerns about the vulnerability of kids using online social-networking services.  For instance, Facebook, which has many more users, has been exploring ways to safely allow children under 13 onto its network, as I discussed in a prior column.

Skout’s situation is the reverse of Facebook’s: It must figure out how to keep predatory adults out of a virtual world designed for teenagers alone, rather than figuring out how to safely allow kids into a world designed for adults.

It’s possible that teens will be less guarded on a site like Skout that they know is aimed at them and their peers, than they will on a site like Facebook, where their “friends” may include their parents.  And that very difference may be one of the main reasons that Skout could attract predators.

Other Interactive Kids’ Sites and How They Work

Of course, interactive kids’ sites have existed for quite some time. For example, Disney’s Club Penguin is a site where children 14 and under can chat, post art, and play games relating to animated cartoon characters.  As described by Disney, “Club Penguin is a snow-covered, virtual world where children play games and interact with friends in the guise of colorful penguin avatars.”  Users cannot flirt with each other on Club Penguin because the type of keywords and messages allowed on the site would make doing so impossible. And more generally, a site focused on animated games for young users—is not the place where users will stray into discussions of sexual or romantic activity.

But what about the dangers of other sites, which target teens and are designed with flirting in mind?  One such site is MyLOL.Net, which bills itself as a teen dating site and a “place to make friends.”  The site’s front page offers chat rooms for teens and shows photos of people who appear to be teens, and the site has a feature that allows users to rate which person, of two whose photos are shown, is better-looking.  Some of the messages from users also appear sexually explicit.  And, according to some reviews on the web, may allow users from ages 13 and up to communicate with one another.

Such sites raise serious concerns—from the potential problem of adults masquerading as teens, to the possibility of pimps and sex traffickers’ advertising the sexual services of the trafficked teen women or men online and thus facilitating the potential exploitation of teens. In some respects, teen dating or flirting sites may create greater vulnerabilities than sites such as Village Voice operated, which have been criticized for facilitating teen exploitation and trafficking.

E-personation Laws May Provide a Remedy When an Adults Falsely Identifies His or Her Age in Order to Enter a Teen-Only Site

Of course, sites that find adults (or even teens themselves) engaging in harmful behavior online can always kick users off for violation the site’s Terms of Service (ToS).

Moreover, in many states it is illegal for someone to impersonate another person—even a fictitious person—for the purpose of causing harm, and preying on a child or teen would surely be considered harmful behavior.

California, for example, has a specific law relating to online impersonation or “e-personation” that makes it unlawful to knowingly and without consent credibly impersonate another person through or on an Internet Web site or by other electronic means with the intent to harm, intimidate, threaten or defraud another person.

In California, an impersonation is deemed “credible” under the law when another person would reasonably believe, or did reasonably believe, that the defendant was or is the person who was impersonated.  In California and other states like Washington, a victim may seek civil damages from the impersonator.  In addition, an online may impersonator face a fine and possible jail time—in California of up to one year.

Merely kicking impersonators off a site is a mild penalty at best.  Thus, in certain cases, Skout and other teen sites may need to also cooperate with state law enforcement entitities to use longtime anti-fraud laws and/or new e-personation statutes to go after adults that are invading teen sites looking for more than online friendship.

It may be that even such prosecutions will not deter this illegal behavior, however.  If so, then perhaps law-enforcement entities and social media companies alike need to reconsider whether such teen-dating sites are safe business models as currently constructed.

One response to “Are Teen Flirting Sites Safe? The Skout Experiment Provides a Cautionary Tale

  1. Marlin Page says:

    Thank you for sharing this great article. As parents we really have to pay attention to not only the websites are children vision, but take a good look at the apps they download. I visited the website and I was overwhelmed with the comments from the children who were upset that the site was temporarily disabled. This site literally “opened” the door to online predators, but also raises the concern about us adults monitoring our child’s online interactions.