Kik Messenger is a free instant messaging and social networking app that uses your smartphone’s data plan or Wi-Fi connection to send messages to other Kik users, bypassing SMS (short message service). It’s available on iOS, Android, and Amazon for Kindle Fire.
While Kik is not unique in how it transmits communications, it differentiates itself with a distinctive but controversial effort to target a specific demographic: Kik appeals to the teenage crowd because of its emphasis on privacy and anonymity. As of 2016, Kik Messenger had some 300 million registered users, and was used by an estimated 40% of teenagers in the U.S.
The trick is that you do not have to register your phone number with Kik — it needs only your name and email — which lets you maintain a super-private presence on the platform that’s identifiable only by your user name, the name you register with. With only a user name as an ID, Kik lets you exchange messages, photos, videos, sketches, stickers, mobile webpages, emoji and other content with others on the platform. This greatly appeals to teen users (the official minimum age is 13 years old), as well as others with privacy concerns.
With a user name instead of a phone number, you don’t automatically share personal information with others — your chat companions on Kik can only see your display name, user name, and profile picture. They can’t see your email address, phone number, or birthday, though within a Kik group, everyone can see your user name. An optional feature checks for Kik accounts that match email addresses or phone numbers on your smartphone to help you find your contacts.
The easy-to-use, yet full-featured app has the familiar look and feel of an SMS text messenger, but with a number of appealing perks. Like most text-messaging apps, Kik sends notifications to let you know when you have sent your message and when it was received. You can personalize audio notifications with different tones and receive them when someone messages you, and you can also apply themes to your chats. A live typing feature indicates in real time when your contact is replying to your text. This way, you know at least that there’s a message in progress. You can also see when a message you’ve sent has been read.
Kik really stands out for its social media integration. You can use Kik to invite friends or family via SMS, email, or through Facebook and Twitter. If friends whose contact information you have saved on your phone sign up via their phone number or email, Kik detects that you are connected and sends notifications to link up on the service.
Kik users each have a unique QR-like code they can access from their settings that allows them to find or invite new members to the service. To add a user from a Kik code, tap the search icon, then tap Find People, then tap Scan a Kik Code. You must allow Kik to access your camera before you can scan a second Kik code. When someone scans your code, a chat opens, and they can immediately send you a message. Also, you can find Kik codes online in social media, or at cafes and other venues.
Video and group chats
You can initiate a group chat by tapping the magnifying glass search icon, tapping Start a Group, and then adding users to your group. You can join a group chat — either public or private — with up to 49 other participants. Private groups are not searchable via the app and people can join by scanning the group Kik code or if they’re added to the group by one of their own contacts. Public groups are searchable and identified by a hashtag. You also have the option to directly chat with a group member, and you control whether or not you’re available for direct messages. Disabling the direct message feature means others in the group cannot message you.
For those seeking an alternative to Skype or FaceTime, Kik facilitates real-time video chat that’s similar to other video chat apps. You can video chat live with friends one-to-one or chat with up to six friends in a private chat. A Video Chat toggle lets you join or leave a group chat at will. Kik lists all the chats you have with people, letting you click to access the chat or to start another chat.
Another teen-oriented feature is Kik’s bot shop, an App Store for bots that operate on the platform. Kik’s chatbots are oriented to social interaction. You can chat with them, take quizzes, and find fashion tips, news, advice, and more in categories like Fun with Friends, Entertainment, Meet New People, Games, Fashion & Beauty, and Lifestyle. If you don’t have buddies to chat with, the bots provide an entry into the chat arena so you can meet new people.
Young chat challenges
Those crazy kids — always up to something. Kik’s teenage fan base has generated quite a bit of heat concerning the amount of privacy and anonymity the app affords, as well as fears and some sad real-world examples of predatory criminal behavior by adults and abusive behavior. In 2017, a Forbes and Point report revealed a large number of crimes against youths linked to the service. Kik has responded to such concerns by publishing expansive guidelines for parents whose kids may be on the platform.
Despite Kik’s recommended safety measures and general tips, parents cannot automatically view their kid’s Kik chats remotely — they must have the password and view chats on the same device. There is no technical way to enforce the 13-or-over rule or to guarantee that a young person will not register on the service with a false birth date.
Kik doesn’t want any trouble. And one way to avoid it is to reach out to law enforcement before the law does any reaching out of its own — and to be helpful if it does. The app’s Trust and Safety team is on call 24/7 for emergency disclosure requests. Under most conditions, Kik can’t view written messages between users, but it can view images and videos, retaining them until they are received. Kik also preserves data for 90 days in response to valid requests — and even posts police request forms in downloadable PDF format on its website. The company sponsors webinars to educate law enforcement about how the app works and participated in the 2018 Crimes Against Children Conference.
Despite those efforts, experienced observers note that the process of getting information from Kik can be slow, as Kik can find users on its system only through user names. Because Kik is a Canadian company, that process can also slow to a crawl, as information requests from the U.S. must go through the Justice Department.
Is Kik for you?
Kik is designed to appeal to teens with lots of engaging features that let them interact and have fun online. It is not for everyone. The company has taken the initiative in recent years to reach out to parents and law enforcement, as well as users, in an effort to protect the safety of its young chat patrons. More than ever, the rules of online engagement apply regarding chatting with strangers, meeting unknown parties in real places, giving out too much information about yourself, and providing kids with the optimal amount of supervision and oversight.
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