Teen murder puts app under spotlight

Smartphone app popular among younger teens, Kik Messenger is on the defensive following the stabbing death of a 13-year-old girl in Virginia who told friends she was using Kik to connect with an 18-year-old man.

Federal authorities and parents are scrutinising a popular teen messaging app following the murder of a Virginia teen who may have met her killer via the anonymous chat system. Police arrested two Virginia Tech students in connection with the death of Nicole Lovell (13) whose body was found three days after she sneaked out of her home on January 27.

Authorities declined to discuss how the college students met the teen. Lovell’s mother said her daughter likely connected with the suspects online. The Roanoke Times reported Lovell shared her Kik username on at least one online teen dating site and friends told the Associated Press she was using the app to chat with an 18-year-old man.

The company confirmed Thursday it turned over data to the FBI and local police investigating the case, but declined to specify what information it had provided.

Child-safety experts say focusing on Kik alone won’t solve an ever-changing problem.

Why do teens love Kik?

Kik is popular with kids because it offers almost no effective parental monitoring and lacks controls to prevent children from using it. The messages cannot be automatically duplicated or “mirrored” to another device and only the authorised user has access. That means there’s no way for a parent to see the message exchanges without getting the password from their kid.

While the app says it’s limited to anyone 13 or older, there’s no age verification process: users only need an email address and can pick whatever birth date they want to use. The company said it uses “typical” industry standards for age verification and will delete accounts of anyone younger than 13 if it finds them, or it a parent requests it.

Unlike many phone-based messaging apps, Kik doesn’t require a phone number, just a user-selected name. That means it can be used on non-phone devices such as Kindles, iPads or iPod Touches, making it harder to monitor.

A newly updated guide for parents posted on the company’s website Thursday explains how the app works and offers suggestions for monitoring its use. Among the recommendations: Parents should ask their children for the password, review recent messages and block anyone sending inappropriate messages.

The company also offers guidance on how to report suspected illegal activity to police, and explains how parents can request an account be deleted.

Colon said kids love using the Internet because they receive attention they might not be getting elsewhere. In those cases, parents need to be extra careful to ensure the conversations are appropriate, and to teach kids that unsupervised meetings with strangers they’ve found online is “a recipe for disaster”.

“They want to be loved and want to have friends and don’t see the dangers we might see as adults,” Colon said.

“A lot of kids feel a lot more comfortable online.”

Kik, founded in 2009 by Canadian college students, says 40 percent of its 240 million users are US teens.

The company was valued at $1 billion during a round of investment-capital expansion last summer, when it drew a $50-million investment from a Chinese internet company.

Lotter said parents need to ensure they’re monitoring kids’ Internet use and regularly talk about what’s appropriate. Several people recently posted on the Kik download page on iTunes asking the company to change the way the app works to improve child safety.

“There’s thousands of apps like this, and the reality is that Instagram isn’t much different than Kik, once you understand the underlying technology,” he said.

“Last year we were talking about Snapchat. Next year we’ll be talking about something else.” – usatoday.com

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