Kik, like the past, is a foreign country.
The mobile chat app of choice for 40% of US teenagers (according to the company) contains an entire version of the internet inside its virtual borders, but like those pesky high-frequency ringtones, Kik is largely inscrutable to people born before the turn of the millennium.
News that a 13-year-old girl, Nicole Madison Lovell, chatted with an 18-year-old man on Kik the night before he kidnapped and murdered her, however, has added urgency to the parental quest of understanding what kids are getting up to on their phones these days.
What is Kik, and why are kids so into it?
At first glance, Kik is just another free messaging app for smartphones. You log in, you pick a user name, and you send texts, selfies, and emojis to your friends.
But that’s just the first level of the Kik experience, which is clearly designed with a teenage user in mind (“For Kik, youth are the primary focus,” founder and CEO Ted Livingston wrote in 2014).
The app has a built-in web browser and all sorts of internal native apps, which means that once you arrive in Kik, there’s very little reason to leave. You can play mobile games, make memes, watch videos, listen to music, and check out the funniest content on Reddit.
Does it encourage flirting?
Crucially, you can find and chat with total strangers on Kik. Two of the top five internal apps are Flirt!, which gives you a list of users in your age range to, well, flirt with, and Match & Chat, a Tinder-for-Kik that lets you swipe left or right on users and chat with the people who swipe right on you too.
While the ability to match people up with strangers for a conversation is nothing new (remember AOL chatrooms?), what’s concerning to many parents and internet safety experts is that Kik is anonymous. You don’t need to link your account to a phone number, and you don’t need to use your real name.
On Kik, you can be whoever you want.
That freedom seems to foster a certain breed of cyber-libertinism. Within a day of downloading Kik, two Guardian reporters were sent unsolicited photographs of butts and breasts. A third received a message asking if she would “like to show your cute feet”.
Is it dangerous?
Anonymity is an important touchstone of free speech on the internet, and teens are an important target demographic for internet startups. That combination of youth and anonymity has proved exceedingly valuable to Kik, which has been valued at $1bn, but also dangerous to some of its young users.
Local news reports are chock-full of tales of predators using the app to prey on children, either by contacting potential victims before meeting and raping them or by extracting child abuse material from them.
In January, for example, a 25-year-old Louisiana man was convicted of using Kik to extort young girls into providing him with nude photographs. The perpetrator pretended to be a young girl himself in order to persuade 45 victims, aged 8-14, to share child abuse material with him.
Kik declined to be interviewed for this story but said in a statement: “Online safety is Kik’s number one priority as a company. We are reviewing all aspects of safety in an effort to further improve the experience for our users.” The company added that it will provide more details on its safety program “as we make progress on these ongoing efforts”.
What should parents do?
“Yes, parents should be concerned about Kik,” says Stephen Balkam, the founder and CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute, “but they shouldn’t be terrified.”
Balkam points to the anonymity allowed on Kik as a key reason for his concern.
“As a parent, I would be very wary of a child of mine using an anonymous messaging app,” he says. “Anonymity is an important part of free speech and dissent, but for minors it causes problems.”
Balkam suggests that Facebook Messenger is a safer alternative, since Facebook requires users to display their real names.
Michael Kaiser, the executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance, concurs.
“Kik is not designed to create a community of bad behavior, but there does tend to be bad behavior on anonymous apps,” Kaiser says. “It’s a rough environment for young people to be in.”
Kaiser emphasizes that the key for parents is to communicate – openly and frequently – with their children about their online lives.
“Part of normal conversation is asking, ‘What happened at school?’ or ‘What happened on the playground?” Kaiser says. “You have to have that same rapport for online, and ask, ‘What are you doing online?’”
He also stresses the importance of communication. FOSI provides parents with tools, such as sample “family safety contracts” that parents can use to guide potentially awkward conversations.
“Having the tech talk now is almost more difficult than having the sex talk with your kids,” he says. “The birds and the bees talk is one and done. The tech talk needs to happen almost once a year because of new technology and new apps.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010