Using Social Media as a Weapon

Federal authorities and parents are scrutinizing a popular teen messaging app following the murder of a Virginia teen that may have met her killer via the anonymous chat system.

Police arrested two Virginia Tech students in connection with the death of Nicole Lovell, 13, whose body was found three days after she snuck out of her home Jan. 27.

Authorities declined to discuss how the college students met the teen. Lovell’s mother said her daughter likely connected with the suspects online. Supposedly Lovell share her KIK user name or at least one online teen dating site and friends told the Associated Press she was using the app to chat with an 18-year-old man. Kik may be the latest app but is not the only one. Kik, was founded in 2009 by Canadian college students, says 40% of its 240 million users are U.S. teens.

Kik is popular with kids because it offers almost no effective parental monitoring and lacks controls to prevent children from using it. The messages cannot be automatically duplicated or “mirrored” to another device and only the authorized user has access. That means there’s no way for a parent to see the message exchanges without getting the password from their kid.

While Kik says it’s limited to anyone 13 or older, there’s no age verification process: users only need an email address and can pick whatever birthdate they want to use. The company said it uses “typical” industry standards for age verification and will delete accounts of anyone younger than 13 if it finds them, or it a parent requests it.

Unlike many phone-based messaging apps, Kik doesn’t require a phone number, just a user-selected name. That means it can be used on non-phone devices such as Kindles, iPads or iPod Touches, making it harder to monitor. That means that a predator of any age can pretend to be a 15-year-old-kid,

How can parents protect their kids?

A new guide for parents posted on the KIK’s website explains how the app works and offers suggestions for monitoring its use. Among the recommendations: Parents should ask their children for the password, review recent messages and block anyone sending inappropriate messages.

Taking away a child’s cellphone is like taking away one of their arms. Kids love using the Internet because they receive attention they might not be getting elsewhere. In those cases, parents need to be extra careful to ensure the conversations are appropriate, and to teach kids that unsupervised meetings with strangers they’ve found online is “a recipe for disaster.” Children want to be loved and want to have friends and don’t see the dangers we might see as adults.

 Parents need to ensure they’re monitoring kids’ Internet use and regularly talk about what’s appropriate. It’s not about teaching kids not to use a specific app. It’s about teaching them not to give this kind of information out.