What is Kik and Why Is It a "Predator's Paradise"?

Lori Lamothe

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Over the past year there have been dozens of child pornography arrests linked to Kik, a free messaging app with more than 300 million registered users. A third of teens "actively use" the platform and about 40 percent of teens have tried it. Overall, approximately 70 percent of Kik's users were between ages 13 and 24 in 2016, which is when the company stopped releasing usage data.

While Kik appears similar to Snapchat and other messaging apps at first glance, a key difference makes it a conduit for pedophiles to share pornography and groom underage victims. Like other messaging apps, Kik enables people to talk with each other one-on-one or in group chats, and to share photos, videos and other content.

The platform also offers two internal apps, Flirt! and Match & Chat, that compete with dating platforms like Tinder. All users who claim to be 13 and above can swipe right to chat with someone they like, just as others can swipe right to chat with them. Because nothing is verified, if children younger than 13 enter a false birth date, they can access these tools as well.

In addition, the platform has no parental controls:

The worst thing about Kik is they don't offer any parental controls in the app. The kids are free to do anything, and parents can't control them. It seems like Kik wants the kids to do anything they want without asking for permission from their parents. I don't know who designed this creepy and weird platform. --Clevguard, Kik App Reviews

According to a convicted pedophile featured on CBS News' "48 Hours," the unmonitored platform is a "predator's paradise." While any app with a young user base attracts pedophiles, Kik makes it especially easy for them to connect with each other and with children. Because the app allows users to sign up with only an email address and does not require a phone number, it offers predators more privacy and anonymity than WhatsApp, iMessage and Snapchat.

In addition, historical data is extremely difficult to obtain. The Kik help center makes it clear that the company stores nothing:

Your Kik messages are stored locally on your device (right in the Kik app). We don't see or store any of your chats, and so we aren't able to provide you with a copy of your messages. . . There isn't currently a way to save or backup your Kik chats. Depending on your device, you can screenshot the parts of your chats you’d like to save. It’s also possible to use a second device to take a picture of a chat as it appears on your screen.

This week's arrests and convictions

Since the Canadian app went live more than a decade ago, authorities have arrested thousands of adult users across the nation for using the app to view and a distribute child pornography. This week alone there have been multiple charges and convictions from Texas to Missouri to Massachusetts.

In Texas, Scott McGuire was sentenced to federal prison for the production and possession of child pornography on Kik. In Grand Forks, South Dakota, Noah Owen-Fain Risinger was charged with 10 class B felony counts of promoting a sexual performance by a minor via Kik, the maximum number of counts that could be charged. In Springfield, Missouri, Andrew David Ferrill was sentenced to federal prison without parole for his activities on Kik.

In Templeton, Massachusetts, former school committee member Audrey (AJ) Robinson was charged with possession of child pornography after he unknowingly sent files via Kik to an FBI agent. An investigation revealed that Robinson's cell phone allegedly contained hundreds of files of child sexual abuse material, and an email account that showed thousands of child sexual abuse materials sent and received.

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Most parents aren't aware of Kik

If you haven't heard of Kik, you're not alone. Many parents are familiar with Instagram, WhatsApp and Snapchat but are unaware of Kik—and its dangers. According to Forbes, the startup received $120 million in funding since its 2009 founding and is now valued at more than $1 billion:

Though many previous reports have recounted individual exploitation crimes facilitated over Kik, many parents may not have heard of Kik. But their kids probably have.

Created by University of Waterloo students, the app safety page advises parents to delete inappropriate images on their children's accounts rather than alert law enforcement. According
to the company's site:

Teens should be aware that sending or receiving sexually explicit images of a minor (even if they are self-portraits and even if they are sent to and/or from another minor) is illegal in Canada, the US, and many other countries. Ask them to delete any images they may have saved, and inform the others involved about the serious criminal consequences of possessing or distributing sexually explicit images of a minor.

Aside from the rampant pornography chat rooms and direct messages, the app has resulted in at least one death. In 2016, 13-year-old Nicole Lovell from Virginia was abducted and murdered by a man she met on Kik.

The FBI's involvement

From 2017 to 2018, the FBI took over the Kik account of a man who allegedly used the site for child pornography. Unbeknownst to other users, federal agents convinced 23-year-old Daxton Hansen of Salt Lake City to sign over his account to the agency.

For more than a year and a half, an agent oversaw a mass of material shared on the app. The operation was allegedly the first time the feds ran an account of a pornography suspect. While the move was controversial because it allowed pedophiles continue sharing thousands of images, authorities have argued such tactics are necessary to slow the deluge of child pornography that has flooded the internet since the pandemic.

In addition to commandeering Hansen's account, the FBI creates fake Kik profiles to catch predators. Last year an undercover agent convinced a Tennessee high school teacher he was chatting with a 12-year-old boy on Kik. The ruse ultimately led to the man's arrest in December 2021.

More recently, an undercover FBI agent allegedly received two images and two videos depicting child sexual abuse from Robinson (whose legal first name is now Audrey), mentioned above. After a search warrant was issued last October, she was charged and arraigned on July 11 in Massachusetts.

The App that was slated to shut down but didn't

The embattled but hugely successful tech startup was scheduled to close in late 2019. Ted Livingston, platform founder and CEO, announced the app would be shut down so Kik could focus on its cryptocurrency, Kin.

That didn't happen. Instead, the holding company Medialab acquired the app for an undisclosed amount. Some estimates claim the company's value has increased by thousands of percentage points since then.

We believe that Kik’s best days remain ahead of it,” MediaLab stated in October 2019. . . Kik has shown an incredible ability to provide a platform for new friendships to be forged through your mobile phone."

Medialab also owns Whisper, another anonymous messaging app associated with child porn.

How can you protect your child?

When Forbes investigated Kik in 2019, one of its reporters set up an account and posed as a 14-year-old boy. Within minutes, predators began messaging the fake account. Since then, the experiment has been repeated with similar results.

What can you do to keep your children safe? Here are McAfee's tips for protecting them online:

1. Create a strong relationship with your kids:

The #1 filtering tool I recommend to parents (who ask) is to roll up your sleeves and do what it takes to build a strong bond with your kids. That bond will unlock their hearts and minds to the bigger stuff like conversations around integrity, empathy, tolerance, modesty and kindness in their social, digitally-driven worlds."

2. Teach them the basics of internet safety:

  • "Don’t give out any personal information online before talking to your parents, including name, address, phone number and more.
  • Don’t share passwords with anyone, even friends.
  • Don’t say anything online you wouldn’t say in person, and if you receive messages or comments that are mean, tell your parents.
  • Don’t upload any photos or download any files without talking to your parents.
  • Don’t talk to anyone you don’t know online, and don’t meet anyone in person you’ve already met online.
  • If you come across anything online that makes you uncomfortable, don’t hide it. Talk to your parents about how you came across it, how you can avoid it in the future, and ask any questions you may have about the content."

3. Use free tools to restrict content:

  • iPhone Parental Controls: Restrict certain content and apps and set screen time limits. If your kid has their own iPhone, add your kid's device to your “family” with the phone’s Screen Time settings. From there, even if you share a device, you can set a variety of controls.
  • Google Family Link (for Android devices): Set controls and screen time limits remotely, from your device. To get started, search for Google Family Link on Google Play.
  • YouTube Safety Mode: Blocks mature content. On any YouTube page, find the footer that lists your settings. Click the “Restricted Mode” button to turn this feature on or off.
  • Google SafeSearch: Filter sexually explicit content from Google search results. Check out your search settings to set it up, or turn it on for all users under 13 through the Google Family Link app.
  • Social Network Privacy Settings: Keep your child’s activity and information restricted to just their friends and control who can follow them. Check out your child’s social network account settings to change who can find them.

Should you track your child's online activity?

Whether to track your child's internet activity with software is a highly controversial topic. In Arkangel, an ominous Black Mirror episode, a protective mom tries to block her daughter from dangerous content and comes to regret it. Somewhat surprisingly, studies have shown teens greatly underestimate the number of parents monitoring underage internet use.

How will your children react if they learn you've been watching their every move for years? Will the tenuous trust between you break beyond repair? Will you be able to stop when they reach the "right" age? What age is that, anyway?

On the flip side, many parents whose children have been victimized had no idea what their kids were up to online.

The FBI warns there are about 500,000 predators active online everyday. Kids ages 12 to 15 are most at risk."

According to PCMag, the median age a child gains internet access is 10. Common Sense Media puts the figure even lower and states that 8- to 12-year-olds are online six hours per day, much of it on social platforms; 13- to 18-year-olds spend at least nine hours a day online. To make matters even more complicated, a recent Harvard survey reports what most of us already know: even though most social media platforms require users to be 13 years of age to sign up, 68% of parents had helped younger children set up an account. In recent years, younger users are spending more and more time on messaging apps.

Considering the vast amount of dangerous information--not to mention people--online, it makes sense to take precautions. Moreover, most younger users admit to doing things online their parents would not approve of.

How far you want to go to keep your child safe depends on your comfort level with invading their privacy. Some studies put the number of parents who don't track their child's computer use at 68 percent. Others at around 50 percent. Of course, that number varies widely according to a child's age. Unfortunately, whatever choice you make it will have consequences.

As for Kik, if you allow your child to use the app, proceed with caution.

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Writer, assistant professor, former baker. I cover cold cases, history, recipes, and culture. If you have a story idea you'd like me to investigate, you can email me at lorilamothe29@gmail.com.

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