This week’s news that three men have been accused of raping children they met through a popular social networking app is a chilling reminder that parents still need to remain vigilant when it comes to the use of technology by their children. An increasing familiarity with technology at school, at home, and on-the-go through mobile devices doesn’t necessarily make children any smarter, and they can still be vulnerable if older people are determined to do them harm.
The social network in question is Skout, a location-based app which was originally intended as a way for adult singles to connect in bars, at concerts, or “on a bus tour in Barcelona” as their web site suggests. About a year ago, the Skout founders noticed that a number of underage users were using the app, so they decided to set up a separate network for teens.
Now, Skout didn’t just throw its new teen network together. They put in a various safeguards and employed numerous “community managers” to monitor activity and screen chat sessions. There was a zero tolerance policy for inappropriate or suspicious behavior and an extra layer of security was added to the location-sharing routines. But as we all know, it’s relatively easy for the bad guys to pretend to be someone they are not, and it’s just as easy for attention-seeking kids to respond.
In the wake of the tragic incidents, the Skout under-18 community has been shut down. Although the founders say it’s only a temporary measure, it’s hard to know what additional safeguards they can put in place without destroying the informal and unsupervised contact that made the service so popular among teens in the first place.
In many ways the Skout incidents are a wake-up call for parents, including myself, who may have become a little too casual when it comes to their kids’ use of technology. Just because our kids are constantly surrounded by computers, tablets and smartphones doesn’t mean that these devices have become less risky. In many ways, they have become more risky, with faster Internet access, less filters, and more unsupervised use.
Kids still make mistakes and it’s important that there’s a parental safety net for when they do. So pick up your daughter’s cell phone once in awhile and check a few of her texts; make sure you know what social networks your child is using; pull up the browser history on the family computer and see what everyone’s been up to. It’s not spying, it’s parenting, and in this fast-paced digital world our kids need it more than ever.