What makes Skout-type services riskier

Pretty obvious, but it’s good to talk with teens about: anonymous, location-based, mobile chat can be a toxic set-up for digital socializing.

By Anne Collier

“The most unsafe thing you could do is not let your kids start to understand how to interact with the world,” said author, educator, and scientist John Seely Brown in his keynote at the Digital Media & Learning conference in San Francisco last March, adding that we have “a perverse notion of [online] safety in this society.” How we help them navigate digital media safely is very individual, but certainly it’s more effective to talk through the navigating and the media environment of our time and their future than to keep kids away, right? I mean, more effective preparation for when they don’t have us around to set up fences.

Now hold that thought for a moment and consider the Skout story that broke recently. A post in the New York Times Bits blog (and many other media outlets) reported about how Skout, a location-based flirting app for cellphones, had shut down its add-on service for teens because of sexual assault cases reported in several states. The service allowed (and of course for adults still “lets users trade photos, instant messages and virtual gifts. Skout tells a user’s location, but unlike some other new social networking apps … it does not show that location on a map,” the Times reported. In no way am I suggesting we should help our teens navigate services like Skout – the combination of chat technology, anonymity, flirting with strangers as the service’s primary purpose, and location-based technology is about as risky as digital media can get for people experiencing a high degree of identity exploration and sexual development.

I am suggesting, though, that it’s not helpful to our children for us to treat news stories like this as comments on all digital media or young people in general and it is helpful treat them as opportunities to learn some navigation skills (and media literacy, of course, e.g., remembering that the news reports airline crashes not safe landings).

In other words, for young people who are resilient and have engaged parents (the kind who read blogs like this), parents can use the news to talk through what characteristics of these media and technologies need extra critical thinking. Otherwise, the discussion falls to educators, mental health caregivers, social workers, and others who work with young people at risk.

The risky properties

So let’s look at Scout’s risky characteristics again: A location-revealing app/service specifically for anonymous flirting with unknown people is no “place” for kids. Chat rooms in which people are anonymous have always been especially problematic, law enforcement people have made clear for years. Adding in GPS and other location technologies increases the risk factor, but reportedly in the sexual assault cases involving Skout, kids were agreeing to meet with their alleged assailants, not just inadvertently allowing their location to be known. This is far from typical kid or teen behavior, and overall child sexual exploitation has decreased significantly in the past 20 years (down 58% between 1992 and 2008, the latest figures available). But even one case is one too many, which is why at the societal level we need to get a little more nuanced about what constitutes safety in digital media (e.g., eliminate offline identities and online community, and things get less safe – see this) and at the school and household levels help our children development media and social literacy along with their digital literacy. There will always be kids who will either take risks anyway (and usually avoid harm) and kids who don’t have caring adults watching their backs, which is why the conversation has to get more nuanced in policy and education circles as well.

Meanwhile, obviously, it’s a really good idea for parents who are engaged to know what apps kids are using on their phones and in social network sites and to talk with them about whether any location-sharing is happening. If it is, and if everybody in the family doesn’t know this already, they should know that it’s just safer to be sure location’s shared only with people one already knows in offline life.

Related links

* Sexuality educator Dr. Kris’s blog post on teens and online dating
*Slate’s thoughtful perspective piece on the Skout story
* “What does ‘safe’ really look like in a digital age?”

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