June 14, 2012 at 2:50 PM ET
As Facebook considers opening its gates to kids ages 12 and under — many of whom are already on the site — one social network is dealing with the darker side of underage membership. Earlier this week, following the rapes of three minors reported over a three-week time span, the free flirting app called Skout shut down access to minors. All three victims reportedly met their rapists via the app.
Skout created the separate, more restricted service for 13- to 17-year-olds last year in an proactive attempt to protect the minors accessing its site. Far from keeping kids safe, Skout's teen section may have backfired.
Sandra Calvert, Professor of Psychology at Georgetown University, says she's not surprised. As director of the Children's Digital Media Center (CDMC) a multi-university research facility, Calvert told TODAY.com that sites or applications labeled specifically for minors actually attract online predators. "It's like creating fishing pond," she said. "And if it's an area that's supposed to be for flirting on top of that, you've got a situation that could get out of control."
Skout, originally marketed just for adults, allows participants to exchange messages, photos, virtual gifts and their location. The kids' version of Skout however, included parental controls, opt-in GPS which did not provide exact location, staff monitoring and "the creepinator," technology that scans photos for nudity and messages for sexual content.
Despite these safeguards, a 13-year-old boy in Wisconsin met Daniel R. Schmidt, 21, posing as a 16-year-old in Skout's restricted minor's section. Earlier this month, a woman walking her dog in a Milwaukee park discovered the two engaged in a sexual act, and Schmidt was charged with second-degree sexual assault of a child.
The week prior, Gene Zimmerman, a 37-year-old posing on Skout as a teenager with the screen name "Bubbles," convinced a 15-year-old girl in Portsmouth, Ohio, to meet him in person. He drove her to his apartment where he reportedly raped her.
In the last week in May, a 12-year-old girl who went missing in Escondido, Calif., was found in the apartment of Christopher Bradley Nutt, 24, a man police tracked down via the girl's communications with him on Skout. He's now faces several charges, including suspicion of sex with a minor and possession of child pornography.
"I’m disgusted by what’s happened here," Christian Wiklund, Skout’s founder, told the New York Times. "One case is too many. When you have three, it looks like a pattern. This is my worst fear." (We've reached out to Skout and will update this story if we hear back.)
Adult predators pretending as children or teens to trick minors is hardly new. Similar masquerades reportedly took place on Habbo, a social networking game site for teens, which now is under fire "as a hotbed of child grooming and teen sex chat," UK's Channel 4 News found in its special report.
Habbo, which operates in 150 countries and has 10 million unique viewers monthly, is the subject of a Channel 4 investigation. Channel 4 reporter Rachel Seifert spent two months posing as a young girl on Habbo, and says that each of the 50 times she logged on, she was quickly propositioned:
"The chat was very sexual, perverse, violent, pornographic, overtly sexual acts, people saying they were going to do things to others, and it was very graphic.
"Within two minutes I was being asked individually 'do you have a webcam?', 'can we chat on (instant messenger service) MSN, on Skype?' I was also, within a couple of minutes, asked to strip, fully naked, and asked what would I do on a webcam."
On Tuesday, Paul LaFontaine, CEO of Habbo's parent company Sulake, issued a lengthy statement on the company's blog insisting that Habbo is "one of the safest online communities" and that they are working hard to police and protect their young visitors. He said they have more than 225 moderators tracking some 70 million lines of conversation around the clock.
Skout continues to issue similar reassurances. On Wednesday night, in a notice titled "Important Teen Community News!" linked from Skout's home page, Wiklund updated a notice about the suspension of Skout's teen area:
I am deeply touched by all the responses here, and understand the pain the temporary suspension is causing. Rest assured, we are working around the clock on this. While we are making good progress on building new features that will enhance Skout’s safety — we are not quite there yet. Please, bear with us and hang in there!
Whether new features can keep out predators is debatable.
"I think anybody who creates separate (Internet) spaces for minors, especially if it's within a space adults are populating, should expect this," Calvart told TODAY.com. "This is what somebody who is a sexual predator is looking for."
Predators who hang out in kid-restricted Internet zones are one of many facts Facebook must wrestle with as it considers opening its own walled garden for kids 12 and younger, as the social network confirmed it's doing earlier this month. As it said in a media statement:
Many recent reports have highlighted just how difficult it is to enforce age restrictions on the Internet, especially when parents want their children to access online content and services. We are in continuous dialogue with stakeholders, regulators and other policymakers about how best to help parents keep their kids safe in an evolving online environment.
According to a Consumer Reports study published in May, an estimated 5.6 million kids aged 12 and under still manage to have Facebook accounts, with 800,000 harassed or subjected to cyberbullying on the social network. Further, the study suggested that most parents who knew their kids were on Facebook did not discuss online safety or keep up with the Facebook activities of their children.
While it may very well be impossible to keep any place safe, in the real world or online, it's this lack of parental involvement that concerns researchers. "Youth need to be taught that what people are telling them are not what they really are, and that they should not be meeting people they are meeting online," Calvert said. "Kids may be a little more savvy about navigating the Internet, but they're not as experienced with the dangers of it. Parents need to know what's happening and guide their kids. It's that same conversation — you don't get into cars with strangers, you don't meet with people you don't really know."