Zach Anderson, an Indiana teenager, was recently sentenced to 25 years on that state’s sex offender registry after he slept with a 14-year-old who told him she was 17. The pair met on the hook-up app “Hot or Not,” which prompted the judge on the case to bemoan, at length, the sexual mores of kids these days.
But maybe His Honor should’ve directed the ire a bit higher, at Silicon Valley: After all, that’s where several companies are designing “adult” hook-up apps … and then marketing them to young teens.
Historically, the apps in this space have explicitly required that their users be above 18 or 21, whichever is the local age of majority. But Hot or Not welcomes anyone over 13, the absolute minimum age set by a 1998 law that governs children’s online privacy. Down, the app formerly known as “Bang With Friends,” avows that its Web site isn’t “structured to attract” children, but never actually says they can’t come in.
Meanwhile, behemoth Tinder, despite banning the solicitation of “personal information from anyone under the age of 18,” openly welcomes underage users: In fact, in February 2014, Tinder’s Justin Mateen bragged that more than 7 percent of all users are between 13 and 17.
Sorry, but who thought that inviting teenagers onto a hook-up app that also includes millions of over-18s was an even remotely smart or responsible idea?
“There needs to be, in my opinion, greater responsibility on the part of app creators and developers,” said Donna Rice Hughes, the president and CEO of the Internet safety group Enough Is Enough. “They are creating an opportunity for strangers to meet each other, and they’re not recognizing that in those situations young people are particularly vulnerable.”
To their credit, of course, most of these apps do claim to segregate the over-18s from the under-18s. But that’s just a claim: There are no visible safeguards in place. And arguably, by inviting teenagers in to begin with, hook-up apps are inviting them to lie about their age.
Tinder will, for instance, only show adult users to other adults. But it took me 15 minutes, and zero hoop-jumping, to falsely register as a 14-year-old looking to ~hook up.~
Meet Me, a Web-based hook-up app, had much the same process: in a couple of clicks, I was in — not as my 20-something self, but as a 14-year-old kid. In fewer than three minutes, two teenagers “chatted” me, trying to trade pics.
Do hook-up apps have an obligation to protect underage users? Legally speaking, not really. COPPA, the federal statute that governs how Internet companies interact with kids, only applies to children younger than 14.
And under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — the critical Internet legislation that basically allowed social networks to exist — a site operator can’t be held responsible for the misdeeds of its users, except in a couple very narrow circumstances.
In 2006, for instance, a Texas mother sued Myspace for gross negligence after her 13-year-old daughter met a 19-year-old man on the site and was sexually assaulted. In dismissing the case, an appeals court ruled that “their claims are barred by the CDA.” Even if Myspace should have had better rules or age verification software in place — as lawyers for the girl and her mother claimed — they still had no legs to stand on, legally.
In the words of Hot or Not’s Terms of Service, “we’re not responsible for anything that you post or say.”
And yet, just because apps like Tinder and Hot or Not aren’t obligated to protect their underage users, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t do it, anyway. Skout, another app in the location-based meet-up/hook-up space, also allows users under 18 — but it moderates them relentlessly. Thirteen-to-17-year-olds, for instance, are sidelined into a version of Skout called “Skout for Teens.” Teen Skouts can’t interact with adult Skouts, and the company employs a huge moderation force and a number of proprietary algorithms to make sure they’re kept separate.
Skout, of course, did none of this out of the kindness of its heart: In June 2012, three adults were arrested for using the app to prey on and sexually assault minors.
Will it take a rape case or an Orwellian sex-registry sentencing to get Tinder and Hot or Not to do the same?
“With all the great technology out there, I’d love to see these sites do more to guarantee that underage users aren’t getting on” — and that older users aren’t faking their ages, Hughes Rice said. “That would be the right step by corporate America.”
In the meantime, however, she isn’t holding her breath: “Ultimately, that’s why kids have parents.”
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