As a mom, and a communications professional in the technology space, I’ve heard some pretty scary stories about kids’ use of social media. Predators lurking on Facebook, bullying happening via Twitter and even suspicious activity occurring on Minecraft.
As parents, we try to stay on top of what our kids are doing, but the technology seems to be outpacing our ability to monitor. And there seems to be a new breed of apps out there that are wreaking havoc on our children. SnapChat and ask.FM seem to be particularly problematic. Well, at least that was before a friend — someone I have no doubt is an engaged mother — wrote the following words to me:
“I want to share my story to as many moms as possible, so it doesn’t happen to anyone else.”
I thought she would share a bullying story gone wrong, but it was much, much worse. My heart ached for her — but even more for her 12-year-old daughter.
You see, we continue as parents to try to give our kids an inch of technology so they can feel accepted and part of their generation. We often complain that we see only the tops of our kids’ heads because their noses are always in their phones — but we don’t take them away or limit their use. We think we have explained the rules, controlled the mechanism, established boundaries — but then a new company comes along with a new “app” that is better, faster, easier in every way, and it probably is. Until it’s used for evil and not its original intent.
And we don’t even know it’s happening.
Enter Kik (and several other messengers that fly under the radar of parental controls because they are apps. And oh yeah, kids can delete the messages so they are no longer on their device –although they can remain on the recipients.)
Kik Messenger (launched in late 2010, but gained a lot of popularity in 2012) is an instant messaging app for mobile devices. The app is available on most iOS, Android, and Windows Phones operating systems free of charge. It uses a smartphone’s data plan or WiFi to transmit and receive messages, so kids that have limited texting or no cellular texting at all love it — particularly because we now live in a world where free wi-fi is everywhere.
But kids really love Kik because it is more than typing messages. They can add videos and pictures to their text. They can also send Kik cards, which let them include YouTube videos, GIFs, or their own drawings in their conversations (these also fly under the radar of most parental controls.) The problem is some kids share their private Kik username on public social networks, or can find other users, usually with “cute” photos as their profiles. Kids post their username on their Twitter, Instagram or Tumblr pages and once someone knows their username, anyone can send them a message — and sexual predators are using it to contact minors ALL THE TIME.
According to an article from The CyberSafety Lady: “There are no parental controls for this messaging app of course, this app is designed for adults. And the usual parental controls on your child’s device won’t work within the Kik Messenger app. So blocking YouTube for example on your child’s iPod, won’t disable the YouTube app within Kik Messenger. Some parents are sharing messaging apps with their children to supervise their interactions. This can be especially helpful for younger users. Kik Messenger doesn’t enable this ability. The moment you log into the same Kik account on another device previous messages and conversations are deleted from the account. Logging out (resetting) of Kik messenger also deletes all previous conversations and messages, which for many parents makes parent supervision quite unreliable.”
So, if you are like me, this is where you say: “This wouldn’t happen to me. I’d monitor my kids’ devices better. And they understand the dangers of talking to strangers.”
And then I read this from my friend, and realized that if placed in a situation like this, I’m just not sure my daughters wouldn’t act the same
The below is a first-hand account of the incident. It is abridged for privacy and publication:
I picked up my 12 year old from summer camp one day, and her counselor made a joke about my daughter with her “phone” during a fire drill. Oddly enough, she doesn’t have a phone, but she does have a Galaxy Player. It’s an android device like the phone, just without the phone components. She is strictly forbidden from taking this device to camp, so, I took it from her right then and there as a punishment.
When I got home, I started investigating what was on the device to see what was new and what she was so interested in. She started sobbing dramatically and announced through hysterics, “Mom, please don’t be mad… I got a Kik account.”
Because I try to keep up with the latest in social media for tweens/teens, I was furious with her. I knew that these sorts of apps were bad news. I pulled it up and sure enough she had deleted the conversations as she went so I had no idea what she had been doing on it. I sent her to her room, and started looking at other things on the device to see what else was on it.
I pulled up the photo gallery section of her device, and when I saw the Kik file, my heart just broke into a million pieces. Photos of my daughter in her underwear posed in sexy selfies in front of her mirror. I started sobbing and my knees gave out.
I immediately thought she was sending these photos because she thought all her friends were doing it. But then — amongst the sexy scandalous selfies — were photos of her crying. Like she was trying to send the photos but mis-angled the camera and it showed her face instead. The million pieces of my heart broke into a million more. Something was really wrong.
We called her to the living room and had a very serious discussion with her. She said she downloaded Kik at camp (free wifi) on Thursday. Then, on Friday she “kik’d” some cute guy (reportedly a teen boy) who posted a photo with the comment, “Kik me,” so, she said she did exactly that. He asked for a simple photo of her, and she complied. Once she gave him a harmless photo, he started demanding more scandalous photos, like the ones in her underwear.
She didn’t know how to make him go away, and he kept telling her he would “upload her picture” and “ruin her life” and her “friends and family would disown her if they found out” if she didn’t comply with his demands. This all happened in two short days of her having a Kik account.
She told us through tears that she had deleted all the conversations that would back up her story, so of course, I had my doubts. We told her if the story was true, we needed to call the sheriff, and she surprisingly agreed.
The officers came to our house and had no idea what Kik was. Initially, they told us because she wasn’t “nude” or in pornographic acts that the photos and such were harmless. We felt they were merely implying that we needed to get a better handle on our kid.
Frustrated, heartbroken, and confused, I downloaded Kik to MY phone and logged into her account. She showed me the name of the person who was blackmailing her, and told me who was who on her list of people she talked to. I just wanted some idea what she was exposed to.
That night, the app buzzed all night long from her “friends” at summer camp, all wondering why she wasn’t replying. Then the next morning, while I was at work, it happened.
Him: “(daughter’s name)” “Answer me” “What are you doing”
Me (as my daughter, trying to talk like she would): “Go away”
Him: “No sorry. You don’t get to tell me that.”
“I will upload this photo.” (One of her in her undergarments.)
“You want your friends and family to see these photos? “(then proceeds to post each and every photo she’d sent him)
Me: “Wat do you want?”
Him: “Let me see you. What are you wearing. You can take a photo.”
Me: “wat kind? wat kind of pic do u want?”
Him: “Show me what you are wearing.”
I thought it was now or never, so I went to the Sheriff’s office to show them the exchange.
I replied: “Busy”
Him: “Photos you have to take: (here he goes down a list of 5 photos – ranging from a fully dressed to “fully body naked in front of the mirror.” He also included some inappropriate graphics.) You do all that I want and I won’t ruin your life.”
Him: “Do you understand?”
Me: “U need to wait. can’t now. busy.”
Him: “I give you one week to do all those photos. If not next Wednesday I start to post your photos online. Do you understand?”
All this is happening while I am sitting with a Sheriff’s deputy from the Special Victim’s unit. The officers had a meeting while I waited. They discussed the points of the case, and what was being said in conversation while we were watching it happen.
They decided to pursue the case, because the demands of the 5 photos took the event from “a family scandal” to an assortment of felonies. The police seized my phone as evidence, then followed me home (without allowing me to call my husband and let him know we were coming), interviewed my daughter, took all the internet devices that accessed Kik and left.
A week went by and we finally heard from the detective. He said pursuing this guy was a long shot. Kik normally doesn’t cooperate with US Law Enforcement (it’s a Canadian-based company,) and he also said there are 10 cases just like this on his desk. He would keep the case active though.
Another long week in and the detective contacted us again about using our account for a Sting operation. We immediately agreed, and were anxious to hear what the police would tell us next. About three weeks later, the detective said in a surprise move Kik complied with his U.S. Warrant. They got all the information about the user, and surprisingly, he was a minor himself — a 16-year-old boy in London.
Because he’s a minor, the U.S. won’t prosecute him since the crime committed is no longer a felony when both people involved are minors. It’s more like a speeding ticket.
But you know why this was ALL good news to me? Because this month of hell is finally OVER. I don’t have to drag my daughter to depositions or a trial. We know who he is and know we won’t be seeing him. We have closure and know that it wasn’t a trafficking ring or an adult predator, although it is disturbing that there are young kids out there doing this and they most likely have disturbing futures ahead.
My daughter’s photo is now in the database for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. If the photos are to surface, ever, law enforcement agencies around the globe can use facial recognition software to identify victims of internet exploitation.
I keep telling her camp counselor that I owe her a lunch, for if she had she not joked about her “phone”, I wouldn’t have checked her Galaxy for another week. If she had gotten those messages (the 5 demands, sent 12 hours after we discovered the incident) she likely would have done it out of desperation. She truly felt like she had no options because this guy said so.
I am so thankful this story had what cannot be described as a happy ending, but at least a safe one. The fact that this young girl was so scared of getting caught that she engaged in even more desperate and unsafe behavior is so troubling, but yet so understanding. Who among us hasn’t tried to avoid getting caught by our parents when we knowingly go against the rules? But have the stakes ever been as high?
I did some research of my own, and found some extremely disturbing trends in the way kids are using this app, as well as a few others, and why Internet predators find these such an easy way to get in touch with potential victims.
It literally scared the crap out of me.
I am still searching for the appropriate way for tweens and teens to use the Internet and engage in social media, but I become increasingly convinced that the development of technology far outpaces the maturity of our children.
I encourage you to share this story with your friends and if appropriate, with your children. I encourage you to have meaningful discussions about Web-based behavior and treat it like drinking and driving — there is no instance about social media where they should be scared to tell you what they have done or contact you to help get them out of trouble. And I encourage you to hug your kids tight tonight.
I know I will.
This post originally appeared at Playdates on Fridays.