You’re a parent of a 13-year-old girl who is just starting to discover the world of social media.
As you’re aware that the online world can pose some dangers to kids, you try to do a bit of research on the various apps your daughter is using, to make sure they’re safe. There’s one in particular she spends most of her time on, and you haven’t heard of it before. It’s called “Kik.”
Doing your due diligence, you browse the Kik website to see what this app is all about. Much to your comfort, the website is full of assurances that Kik is “built especially for teens,” and offers teens a “fun, safe place to connect.”
You’re more than satisfied. What a stroke of luck that, of all the apps your daughter could have chosen as her favorite, she happened to settle on one that was specifically designed for kids her age!
. . . Or so you thought.
Could you have imagined that this app which was purportedly “built especially for kids” would be rife with sexual predators? Could you have imagined that your 13 year-old-daughter would be groomed by a grown man into sending him sexually explicit images of herself? Could you have imagined that you’d wake up one night to find your daughter gone, because she’d agreed to meet this man in person?
These are the all-too-real dangers of the supposedly teen-friendly Kik.
What is Kik?
Kik is a free mobile messaging app that boasts over 300 million users, 70% of which are between the ages of 13-24 years old.
Kik has built its brand on appealing to the teenage demographic. As mentioned in the opening story, their website proudly claims that the app is “built especially for teens,” and provides teens with a “fun, safe place to connect.” However, as we will see, Kik is anything but built to keep teens safe.
In fact, the dangers Kik posed to teens were so great that NCOSE placed the app on our 2022 Dirty Dozen List—an annual campaign that calls out twelve mainstream entities for facilitating, enabling, and profiting from sexual abuse and exploitation.
So what exactly makes Kik so dangerous?
Sexual Predators Grooming Children on Kik
For years, law enforcement has been raising the alarm about Kik being a breeding ground for sexual predators. As one convicted child predator told the media, Kik is a “predator’s paradise.”
One reason for this is Kik’s strong emphasis on privacy and anonymity. Users only need an email, which remains hidden from public view, and a chosen username to sign up for an account. The username can be completely arbitrary and need not reveal the user’s identity.
As such, those who are seeking to groom children can very easily access their preferred pool of victims on Kik (ie. the predominantly young userbase), while pretending to be anyone they want. The strict privacy on Kik also makes it difficult for law enforcement to become involved when reports of grooming or other criminal behavior are made.
Kik’s design features exacerbate the dangers by facilitating and encouraging connecting with strangers. The app has a “Meet New People” feature, which pairs users with complete strangers to start conversations with. There are also public groups that anyone can join by searching for common interests, which results in much interaction with strangers.
The result of all of this is rampant predatory behavior and child sexual exploitation.
A 2022 study published by Thorn, a leading resource on online child exploitation, found that Kik tied with Instagram and Tumblr as the platform where minors reported the second highest rates of online sexual interactions with people they thought were adults. On all three of these platforms, 11% of minor users reported having an online sexual interaction with a perceived adult. The only platform with a higher rate than this was Omegle, at 22% .
It is important to note that some of these children’s sexual encounters may have been with an adult without their knowledge, as predators often pretend to be children. According to the same Thorn study, 26% of minors who used Kik reported having an online sexual interaction with any user (regardless of that user’s perceived age).
To provide just a few examples of specific cases where predators have groomed children on Kik:
- In 2022, an undercover FBI employee began interacting with a child predator on the social media application Kik. In the chats, he made statements that he had sexually abused children, and that he had trafficked a child to engage in commercial sex acts. He also said that he had recently traveled out of state to have sex with another 12-year-old girl.
- In January 2022, a man was sentenced to 35 years in prison for several severe child sexual abuse crimes facilitated through Kik.
- In December 2020, Nathan Larson, a convicted felon and former politician who has openly advocated for the legalization of child pornography, used Kik to groom and eventually kidnap a 12-year-old girl. Larson convinced this girl to send him sexually explicit images of herself (which constitute child sexual abuse material) before kidnapping her.
- A lawsuit filed in 2020 detailed the way in which the Kik allowed at multiple predators access to the plaintiff, who was a minor at the time. Upon reviewing her Kik account, the father of the plaintiff identified at least 13 users who sexually exploited her.
Kik has little to no protections in place to prevent all this grooming and child sexual exploitation. The only real safety settings Kik provides is the ability to block or report a user. This places almost all the responsibility on the victimized children and users, whose age, inexperience, fear, or other vulnerabilities is often a barrier when it comes to identifying and reporting abuse.
Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) Traded on Kik
Kik is also commonly used for the trading of child sexual abuse material (CSAM, the more apt term for “child pornography”). The app repeatedly and frequently makes headlines for this problem. To highlight just a few of the most recent examples:
- In February 2023, an Evansville man was sentenced to eight years for distributing CSAM on Kik.
- In January 2023, a Missouri man pleaded guilty to CSAM charges, admitting he used several Kik accounts to view and distribute CSAM for at least two years. He also stated that he was a member of at least 50 groups on Kik that were dedicated to trading CSAM.
- In January 2023, the admin of a Kik group dedicated to trading CSAM was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
- In January 2023, a former ABC news producer arrested for receiving and distributing CSAM on Kik.
Kik’s emphasis on privacy means they do not actively monitor the private and public chats on the platform. This allows content like CSAM to be traded in secret, and even enables the existence of entire group chats dedicated to CSAM, as seen in one of the examples above.
Children Exposed to Pornography and Harmful Content
Another danger facing children on Kik is exposure to hardcore pornography and other harmful content.
Bark’s 2022 Annual Report found that, of all apps and social media platforms, Kik was flagged the most frequently for severe sexual content. This is the third year in a row Kik received the top spot in this category. Kik was also within the top five apps flagged for Depression, Body Image Concerns, Severe Bullying, and Hate Speech.
On paper, Kik’s policies do not allow pornography or inappropriate content to be posted anywhere on the platform. However, these policies are not being enforced in any meaningful way, as again, Kik does not monitor the chats on their platform due to an emphasis on privacy. As a result, pornography and other banned content flourishes on the platform, to be easily discovered by the children that make up so much of Kik’s user base.
To explore how easy it was for children to be exposed to pornography on Kik, NCOSE researchers downloaded and set up a Kik account as a 13-year-old. Using only the suggested search terms to look up common interests such as #Pokemon or even the innocuous #Fun tag, the researchers were led to chatrooms dedicated to pornography, trading sexually explicit images/nudes, and other content that clearly isn’t allowed on Kik.
There are no filters available on Kik to control the type of content being suggested by these seemingly innocent tags.
ACTION: Call on Kik to Improve Safety on its Platform!
The National Center on Sexual Exploitation is urging Kik to make the following changes:
- Develop and implement better safety features such as filters, parental controls, and moderation strategies that actively catch and block predatory behavior, as well as pornography and other content inappropriate for children.
- Be transparent about the problems happening on Kik. Many platforms provide regular transparency reports detailing the potential risks a user might face while using the service. Kik should provide such a transparency report.
- Provide meaningful education to all users and parents on the potential harms and risks associated with exploitation and abuse on Kik. Prominently feature and highlight reporting processes on all forms of Kik’s interface.
Kik has a responsibility to keep its platform safe for children, the vulnerable population for which it claims its app is designed. Please take 30 SECONDS to complete the action form below, calling on Kik to change!