Within 24 hours of its launch last week, Pokémon GO became the most downloaded mobile game in the U.S. Now, it’s the most popular mobile game ever. It leads you through public spaces on foot to catch animated creatures (“Pokémon”) as they appear on your cell phone screen. This app is doing amazing things for communities. People are spending time outdoors to hunt for Pokémon, gathering in public spaces like parks, piers, and museums. They’re getting active, exercising, and building friendships. (One user even found a puppy!) However, we’ve seen a few Pokémon GO features that concern us.
AT LOVE146, WE OFTEN CAN’T HELP BUT NOTICE HOW NEW OR POPULAR TECHNOLOGY COULD END UP MAKING CHILDREN VULNERABLE TO HARM OR EXPLOITATION.
So we had a conversation with our friend Scott Driscoll, a retired cop who spent several years as a member of an FBI task force specializing in online safety for kids. He’s a big fan of the internet. But his years with the FBI gave him a window into the dark side of the web: For years, he posed as a 13-year-old girl online to track down and arrest people who were trying to exploit children for sex. These days, he’s still in the business of keeping kids safe. At his company, Internet Safety Concepts, Pokémon GO is a hot topic of conversation. “I’ve never seen an app take off so quickly with such a wide range of youth. It’s crossing all over age groups,” Driscoll says.
Since the app is so new and so popular, here are some practical tips from Love146 on staying safe and minimizing your vulnerability while playing Pokémon Go:
1. BEWARE: LURES COULD BE SET UP BY PEOPLE LOOKING TO CATCH MORE THAN POKÉMON.
Lures are a features that let users send out signals to draw nearby Pokémon to a specific location. It’s a great way to catch more of them. The risk? Lures are visible publicly, appearing as a shower of falling confetti on the game’s map. So if you set up a lure, other players will arrive within a few minutes to reap the benefits.
IN THE WRONG HANDS, POKÉMON LURES COULD BE VERY DANGEROUS. “IF I’M A BAD GUY, I KNOW WHERE TO SIT AND WAIT FOR YOUR CHILDREN TO ARRIVE,” SAYS ONE POLICE OFFICER. FOR THOSE OF US WHO WORK WITH THE ISSUE OF CHILD TRAFFICKING AND EXPLOITATION, THIS KIND OF TACTIC IS ALL TOO FAMILIAR.
Some of the youth we serve can trace the beginning of their exploitation to “luring” or “grooming” that happened through online media. (To learn more about staying smart online, check out our Safety Guides for teens and the adults who care about them.)
This feature of the game was used to victimize Pokémon GO players in O’Fallon, Missouri. Suspects used lures to draw people into a secluded parking lot and rob them. It’s easy to imagine how this feature could be used by those who want to take advantage of children. Be smart, and don’t follow lures blindly into isolated areas.
2. LOOK AROUND. HAVING YOUR FACE BURIED IN YOUR PHONE COULD MAKE YOU A TARGET.
Situational awareness — a.k.a., knowing what’s going on around you — is a critical component of self-defense and safety. And it may be one of the first things to go when you’re staring at your phone. The first major car accident related to the game happened on Tuesday. Monday, a man was assaulted while staring at his screen. Some police departments and transportation authorities — as well as the app itself — have issued warnings encouraging Pokémon GO users to play responsibly.
“Be aware of your surroundings. I don’t care what age you are,” added Driscoll.
People have faced some REALLY funny awkward moments on their quest to catch ’em all. One guy was capturing a Pidgey while his wife was in labor. Another got pulled over by the police but kept aiming for Rattata anyway.
Awkwardness happens. Laugh about it. Tweet about it. But use common sense, stay aware of what’s going on around you, and draw the line before it could turn dangerous. “We can get engulfed in these games and very easily lose track of where we are, who we’re hanging out with, and what we’re doing,” says Driscoll.
Different kinds of Pokémon come out at night (like Onyx, Clefairy, and Gastly). If you’re out after dark, go in a large group and stick to well-lit, public areas. And as always, keep your head up. (In Maryland on Tuesday night, four people were robbed while playing after 10 p.m.) Don’t go into areas you don’t know well. If a Pokémon emerges and you’re in a location that isn’t safe, let it go. You’re worth more than Mewtwo. (And you’re definitely worth more than Pidgey.)
3. MAINTAIN STRANGER-DANGER.
Across the world, public spaces are coming alive with people showing up, alone or in groups, to explore and search for Pokémon. And for many users who suffer from social anxiety and depression, this game is really empowering. “I’ve had a rough time mentally recently but today I got Pokémon GO and spent the day exploring and it was great,” writes one Twitter user. It’s getting people outside and connecting them to their communities.
But not everybody should be an instant friend. “Strangers are looking for the same things our kids are looking for. I’m sure most people playing it are really good people, but you never know,” says Driscoll. Yesterday, in Indiana, a boy learned that he was playing Pokémon GO with a registered sex offender. And in one sorta-funny, sorta-baffling incident, an Oregon man was stabbed when he approached another person whom he thought was playing the game. Even if you’re not playing the game yourself, if you live near a Pokéstop or Gym (which you almost certainly do), you may be about to experience a flood of strangers in your neighborhood.
These cats figured it out, the bench in the park across the street is close enough to be ‘in’ the gym. pic.twitter.com/HAlVp84cd6
— Boon Sheridan (@boonerang) July 9, 2016
4. WATCH YOUR BATTERY: DON’T GET STUCK IN AN UNKNOWN PLACE WITH A DEAD PHONE.
The biggest complaint from Pokemon GO users is that the app drains the phone’s power like nothing else. News flash: Wandering around without a known destination and with fast-fading battery life is a really easy way to get stuck in a really tough spot without a working phone. For some survivors of child trafficking we’ve supported at Love146, needing a ride or needing to borrow a phone was actually something that made them vulnerable to exploitation. Check out some of these tips on extending your battery life (though the battery saver mode has mixed reviews). Even better? Bring extra battery power with (through a charger or a portable battery booster) you so you don’t have to get in an uncomfortable position.
5. LET OTHERS KNOW WHERE YOU’RE PLAYING. (ESPECIALLY IF YOU’RE ROAMING ALONE.)
If you don’t want to keep keep texting Mom about where you are, consider downloading Find My Friends (for iPhones), SquadWatch (for Windows phones), or Glympse (for all smartphones). These apps let approved family members and close friends see the location of your phone. Glympse is really user friendly and you can even choose how long you want a person to be able to see where you are.
There’s a lot of potential for good in Pokémon GO. “This might be a good chance for parents and kids to work on technology together,” says Scott Driscoll. We hope it starts conversations and encourages players to look out for each other. “We cannot drop our guard for safety just because we’re having fun.”
And finally, from your friends at Love146 and Internet Safety Concepts:
BE SAFE. BE YOU. BE THE VERY BEST.
Header image adapted from Sadie Hernandez, https://www.flickr.com/photos/sadiediane/4529368560