People who exploit children online will soon have a powerful new tool. We don’t mean to be alarmist, but parents and caregivers should be aware of some concerning news in the social media world. The popular messaging app, Kik, is issuing a new virtual currency that will allow users to make anonymous online transactions while using the app. Under an initiative it calls “Kin,” Kik is issuing a “cryptocurrency” similar to Bitcoin, allowing people to buy and sell stuff while bypassing the traditional banking system.
What could be so bad about that? Stay with me.
Kik anticipates creating an online destination where users can spend their new virtual money. Kin tokens could be used to buy user-created content, pay for pizza delivery, or to access new “premium, exclusive groups that require a paid entrance fee.” Celebrities could create such “VIP” groups and make money by selling exclusive content, like photos, videos, or music downloads.
The Kin tokens will be bought and sold on the open market. (Kik is planning to raise a total of $125 million selling Kin tokens, including $75 million to the general public, in an “Initial Coin Offering.” It’s a way to raise money without having to go to venture capitalists. )
Once users own Kin tokens, they can offer them to others on the Kik system for anything they want — including, say, nude selfies.
Here’s how it could work:
A child wants to join an exclusive group on Kik for fans of his favorite pop act — let’s call them Big Shot X — but he doesn’t have the money to pay for the Kin tokens required to join. One day he gets a message with an easy way to earn some tokens. All he has to do is send the messenger a selfie. Since everyone can be anonymous on Kik, he thinks, “What’s the big deal? People post selfies all the time.” So he sends a headshot. Cool. He joins the group. Then he gets another request: send a more revealing image for even more Kin tokens. At first he ignores it. Then Big Shot X posts an exclusive video for the first 100 fans who respond. The child really wants the video, but doesn’t have the tokens. So he decides to send the pic. Before too long the child has shared more than he’s comfortable with, and is vulnerable to blackmail.
We’ve worked with youth who have reported being victims of similar online blackmail. And we recently returned from the Crimes Against Children Conference in Dallas where we heard too many stories of how children are exploited like this over the Internet. News reports abound about exploitation occurring through connections made on Kik and other social media apps. Snapchat, for example, introduced Snapcash, a way to send money to your friends through the app. Search Google and you’ll find online offers like this: “Trade nudes for snapcash $$$.”
This kind of exploitation is a little more harrowing on Kik, because (unlike California-based Snapchat), Kik is based in Canada – making it harder to for investigators and police to find out who’s on the other end of your child’s message. Law enforcement can’t simply issue a subpoena, it has to work through the international bureaucracy, which can be very complicated and can take weeks and even months.
A Forbes investigation of Kik described numerous accounts of online child exploitation. A child predator interviewed on 48 Hours called Kik a “predator’s paradise.” There are entire web pages devoted to connecting sexters to Kik profiles of “girls” or “men” beginning at age 13. And the youth we work with report Kik is now popular among middle schoolers — children ages 11-13.
In a response to the Forbes investigation, Kik CEO Ted Livingston cited steps his company has taken to try to keep children safe. “We encourage users to report content that they believe violates the Kik Terms of Service and Community Standards. Users are also able to block other users they no longer wish to chat with, or ignore chats from people that they don’t know. Actions are taken against users found to have violated Kik’s community standards and terms of service, including removal from the Kik platform where circumstances warrant.”
Some 92 percent of 13 to 17-year-olds use the Internet daily, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey. For many children, their social media presence is the center of their social world. For many parents or caregivers this poses a huge dilemma. They can keep their kids from using Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Kik, etc., but they would then be denying their children access to their friends. We understand that for many families this isn’t very realistic. So what’s a parent or caregiver to do?
Our Internet Safety Guide can help. It encourages open conversations between a parent or caregiver and child and provides tips about what you can do to help equip and empower youth to stay safe online.
We wrote to Kik on August 30 to ask them to walk us through the Kik Kin token project, and to address our concerns about child safety. We got an automated email telling us they would respond in “2-3” business days:
Three business days later we got another automated note, explaining that due to an unusually high volume of requests, they would respond “as soon as possible.”
We’re still waiting.
We received the following response from Kik’s Help Center on September 21st:
Thanks for reaching out — I’m so sorry about the delay in our response.
We take online safety very seriously, and we’re constantly assessing and improving our trust and safety measures. There are two ways we do this. One is through technology and constant improvements to the product itself. We encourage users to report content that they believe violates the Kik terms of serviceand community standards. The other is through education and partnerships with organizations that help adults and teens understand the challenges of today’s online landscape and how to avoid bad situations. We provide resources to parents, and strengthen relationships with law enforcement and safety-focused organizations.
We look forward to building this new ecosystem of digital services together with our users and developers and we are committed to keeping everyone safe and secure.