A high school girl who used a social media app to get a ride home from summer school and was then allegedly forced to perform a sex act by the driver highlights the dangers of some apps.
The Marshall High School student posted June 1 on the Whisper app that she needed a ride from the school, according to police.
Whisper is an app that lets users post pictures and text anonymously. Whisper shares the posts based on geographic location, so the users nearest the poster are the ones more likely to see the message.
Stephen J. Smith, director of educational leadership at Cincinnati Bell, publishes a website called “A Wired Family” that provides a wealth of information for families in the digital age.
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Smith said that he’s heard of two recent criminal incidents with the Whisper app.
“There is more of a gravitational pull for anonymous apps and Whisper is the latest one,” he said.
Smith, who works with various law enforcement agencies, said there are a number of anonymous apps that allow juveniles to communicate outside of traditional circles, including Yellow, which he described as “Tinder for teens.” The app also tries to find people on Kik and on Instagram.
“Pedophiles flock to this site because it’s so easy to prey,” he said. “You put in the information and then you immediately get thousands of photos of kids ages 13-17. As a user, you can can send photos and videos.”
He said some young girls post provocative photos of themselves and use their Kik user names to be found. Other smartphone friend-finders such as Kik finds hundreds if not thousands of people in a given area and the data is encrypted, Smith said.
“Pedophiles know the apps and the psychology of youths and that they make bad decisions,” he said. “The apps are not bad,” he said. “It’s how they’re used. Parents give their children unfettered access to the apps and the internet.”
In addition to Yellow and Kik, he said parents should also look for apps such as Musical.ly, for making videos, and Vault and other ghost apps that hide apps, photos, texts or other communications on a smartphone. Another app called Burn Note allows people to communicate and the information disappears after its read, which is similar to Snap Chat because there is no way to save the information.
Smith said if a ghost app has been installed, “parents won’t have any idea what’s on their child’s phone.”
He said there are a number of tools that parents can use to protect their children and their phones, such as an app called Circle With Disney that allows parents to manage all devices in the home, and Circle Go that prevents children from downloading apps from other places where the Internet can be accessed.
Dr. Jenni Noll, a professor of pediatrics at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, is working on an extended study on the impact of social media and the internet on children and has done other studies in the past.
Noll, a developmental psychologist and researcher, said parents have to understand that bad things can happen to children in their community, that it is very real, and should be talking routinely to their children about what they are doing with friends, at school, etc. She said it’s difficult to monitor children online because there are many ways to hide profiles or create different profiles as well as the number of apps available to anyone.
“Whisper is just a small fraction of what happens on social media in general,” she said. “Places like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are places where children can post anything when they are vulnerable.
Noll said children who are troubled in any way will go to social media to express their feelings and while they are vulnerable, predators are waiting to hurt or exploit them.
“Parents have to be honest and talk to their children just as they would when they are talking to them about sex and drugs,” she said. “They need to have open communication, monitor behavior and act on bad behavior…. Parents also need to model good behavior when using their own devices.”
She said taking a phone away from a child for a period of time is “devastating” and should not be returned until the child can show they can use the device responsibly.