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After rape and sexual assault allegations, Skout app shuts down teen service

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Mobile app Skout has suspended its teen community network as a result of alleged multiple rapes of minors being tied to its service. While the location-based dating and flirting app is primarily for use by adults, Skout decided to open up the gates to the under-18 set and give them their own division. By segmenting them away from its older users, Skout thought it was taking the necessary precautions.

Unfortunately, this was not the case. According to The New York Times, men were allegedly posing as teenagers to connect with minors via Skout. “In one case, a 15-year-old Ohio girl said she had been raped by a 37-year-old man,” says the NY Times. “In the second, a 24-year-old man has been accused of raping a 12-year-old girl in Escondido, Calif. In the third, a 21-year-old man from Waukesha, Wis., is facing charges that he sexually assaulted a 13-year-old boy.”

As a result, Skout founder and CEO Christian Wiklund says it will no longer be available to anyone under 18. “In recent weeks, we’ve learned of several incidents involving a few bad actions trying to take advantage of some of our younger members. We thought carefully about what to do. We know how much Skout means to our teen community, and, at Skout, our community means everything to us. For now, we believe that there’s only one thing we can do: until we can design better protections, we are temporarily shutting down the under-18 community.”

Our online guards have been progressively lowered as a result of social networking sites. When the likes of MySpace, Friendster, and LiveJournal were first mass introduced, not a day went by without mention of keeping yourself safe on these sites. For many people – including plenty of minors – they made the Internet new, different, and interactive… and risky.

But we’ve gotten smarter and so have social sites. Users are far more educated about privacy settings and security controls than they used to be; the caution tape is much thicker and generally taken more seriously. There’s more concern about our data and how we share, and it’s not a fringe set of consumers who care, it’s nearly all of them. And all this talk about social networking safety might be making us feel more secure than we actually are.

There’s also the fact that all ages should not apply. While Skout doesn’t draw too much attention to the fact that it’s a location-based social app, a la Highlight, Sonar, or Banjo, it includes this feature. Combine that with the app’s inherent purpose – “flirt, friend, chat” – and there should be a big “no kids allowed” sign all over it. Dating sites don’t allow anyone under 18 to sign up, so why would dating apps?

Another question should be raised in all this, and that’s age restrictions on ambient social, location-based apps, like the aforementioned Banjo. Banjo tells me that it defers to the age restrictions of the social networks its users choose to connect to it with – which are Twitter, Foursquare, Instagram, and Facebook. Facebook, Instagram, and Foursquare have a minimum age requirement of 13. Twitter does not appear to have one. I assume that Banjo’s policy applies to most if not all SoLoMo apps, but I had not heard back as of press time. Highlight and Sonar both adhere to the age limits of their integrated social networks as well. Skout also leverages Facebook to integrate users into its service, for the record.

So if someone is old enough to use Facebook, are they necessarily old enough to use the apps it feeds into? I’m playing devil’s advocate here, and it’s very possible that many people think Facebook has all the same dangers that any other digital community does. Maybe it has more to do with a social application’s focus — one with options to add someone to a “hot list” or see “who checked you out” may encourage a certain type of activity and attract a certain type of person. Whatever lies at the root of problems regarding minors, safety, and social, these are important questions to ask — and ones that Skout unfortunately will have to deal with now. 

[UPDATE]

I reached out to location dating app SinglesAroundMe to ask some questions about how their service works. I was told that according to iTunes and the App Store’s policy, dating apps have to require users be over 18 years old, the age limit SinglesAroundMe imposes. Skout must have been operating under the assumption that it was merely a social app and not a dating one, although the app honestly appears to cross that line given its clear purpose to meet, flirt, and find dates. How Skout didn’t fall into this category is beyond me. Here’s an app called SpeedFlirt that looks fairly similar to Skout — actually, it looks tamer — that doesn’t allow minors. 

CEO of social-local app EchoEcho and advisor to upcoming video dating app Flikdate Nick Bicanic also answered a few questions for me about age verification, dating apps, location apps, safety, and how they intersect. He says that while Flikdate uses Facebook for identity and age verification (users must be over 18), the team knows that you can lie about this stuff — and they’re prepared to out those people. The video aspect, which is how Flikdate entirely operates, obviously makes it increasingly more difficult to try to pass yourself off as years older than you actually are. The quick-denial you’re able to give potential suitors also helps avoid unsafe situations. “In a nutshell – it’s the real-time video aspect of Flikdate that’s both fun, fast, and safe… because it pulls back the curtain that sexual offenders need in order for their ruse to work,” he says.