The apps strangers use to reach children

"The Internet is a pedophile's paradise, whether people want to acknowledge that or not."
Published: .
Updated: .

In many ways, Skylar and McKenzie Ritchie are typical kids. They use a smartphone and tablet to stay connected socially.

"I take pictures with my friends. I have 300 followers. And, I follow 353," said Skylar Ritchie.

Their mom has talked with the girls so they know the risks that are lurking in the social media world.

"They know there's pedophiles out there. We want not to scare them, but we want them to know that there's dangers out there and they need to protect themselves, because we can't always be around them," said Nicole Ritchie. "We're very open and honest with our girls."

The dangers may be the apps on your child's phone. At first glance, they are harmless looking icons that could allow your son or daughter's content to be seen by strangers.

"We were in shock," said Ericka Pickell.

Ericka's talking about "YouNow", a live video streaming app her 12-year-old daughter used during a recent slumber party.

"I typed in one of the girls' names and up pops these three 12-year-old girls - my daughter and her friends, and they're talking to total strangers - live," said Pickell. "It's a live slumber party for anybody to watch. I thought, 'Anybody can be seeing this. This is kind of scary'," said Pickell.

Pickell used the experience as a teaching moment.

"Maybe we needed to have a deeper talk about the potential dangers about what could be lurking out there and who could be talking to," said Pickell. "We kind of got graphic about predators and what could happen. People are not who they say they are and it's pretty scary.

"One of her punishments was to read an article about sex trafficking and the real dangers that meeting someone online and going that far with what could happen. I know I can't protect her from everything, but I did want to scare her a little bit to make her realize what consequences her actions have. She doesn't have any apps on her phone right now."

Pickell showed Eyewitness News another live feed on the "YouNow" app and how easy it is to peer into the lives of other people.

"Right now, we're watching someone from Cincinnati, Ohio who looks to be 16 years old, probably ought to be in school. She has braces. She's chatting with at least 200 people. She's in her bedroom on her bed. So, you're in her house with her. There's no privacy," said Pickell.

A spokeswoman for "YouNow" says the app is passionate about protecting users by flagging users for offensive conduct or being underage. "YouNow" says users can block any other user for any reason. The company uses a chat filtration system to filter out inappropriate content and implements technologies to permanently remove bad actors.

"We regularly remove users under the age of 13 from the service and their presence is strictly forbidden," said Candice Reeves.

Author J.J. Cannon wrote a book on social media rules and etiquette called "@Sophie Takes a Selfie." She does not mince words about social media.

"The Internet is a pedophile's paradise, whether people want to acknowledge that or not," said Cannon. "This is a huge playground that we're allowing children to play on, many of them unsupervised."

Cannon has created a list of the "Apps to delete from your child's phone," including her personal comments (see slideshow at top of this page).

Ask.fm Senior Vice President of Communications Valerie Combs says the company has undergone changes.

"Ask.fm was acquired by Ask.com in August 2014 with the number one goal of making the site a materially safer and more positive experience," said Combs.

Ask.fm has provided a link that showcases the app's safety tools.

Gaggle is a Bloomington, Illinois-based company that provides educational products to school systems. The company also monitors what students are doing on social media.

"We have students who are sending inappropriate pictures, we see some bullying. We also see students who are talking about depression, cutting, suicide. It's startling to see how much inappropriate stuff that kids do when you think you're monitoring what they're doing," said Gaggle's Kathy Boehle.

Alex Beck is a Gaggle student safety representative for who keeps up to date with what is trending and what apps kids are using.

"Kik is probably one of the worst ones just because of the known use by child predators using some of the apps. There's apps inside of Kik, things like 'hit me up' or 'let's kiss' or something like that, kids can go in there and just meet strangers," said Beck. "They may be going in there to meet other kids for sexual activity, but predators are going in there seeking out people for that."

Beck also told Eyewitness News about the potential danger of using the app Snapchat.

"Snapchat is always in the news, but that's one of the worst as well, because of how many people aren't aware that the pictures can be saved. There's tons of apps in Android and iPhone where you can hack into, some are called "Snaphack," where you log into that and instead of Snapchat, and when you receive a photo, it can just save everything you receive," said Beck.

"Tinder is used for sexual encounter basically and they don't hide that. You get on there and you swipe left to right to choose somebody that you want to hook up with. We don't know specific ages on a lot of that stuff. But any kind of sexual activity through apps, we'll see junior high kids, middle school kids sometimes," Beck said. "Apps like Tinder, those dating apps, things like 'Ok Cupid' may be appropriate for someone of age, but for students using it, it can never be a good thing. We don't know specific ages on a lot of that stuff.

"Whisper is another thing based on anonymity, where a lot of students will go on there and use it to spread rumors or something they heard about another classmate or something like that. Others don't know where it comes from. So, people feel free to spread whatever they like on there," said Beck. "Chat Roulette and Omega they combine - people can meet up in the room, they just cycle through different videos, different video feeds of people. So, it's like chatting over video with just a stranger. Both of them are known to be used for inappropriate purposes."

"YikYak" is another app to delete, experts say, because of the bullying that takes place.

"It really is like a bathroom wall. You post whatever you want and there's no way to trace it back to you and there's no consequences for saying something really awful," said Boehle.

"Some of the more popular apps seem innocent - Facebook and Twitter. They (kids) might be using those for appropriate reasons. But there's a lot of conversation going on there that's definitely not appropriate," said Beck. "There's a lot of Facebook groups that will have inappropriate content and some of them revolve around things like suicide. You'll see something like suicide. It's not rare to see other users post things, 'Well, you should kill yourself.' 'We hate you.' It's a bad place for anyone of post how you feel because they're not in person."

Some kids have discovered there are apps that allow them to hide inappropriate apps.

"There's an app 'Keepsafe' where you can hide photos in there. So if you're receiving photos from Snapchat and saving them, you hide them in Keepsafe and Keepsafe can look like a calculator. There's a bunch of apps disguised as a calculator, there's one disguised as an audio tool and you use a special code to get in there and that's where those photos will be hidden," said Beck. "There's apps like 'App Lock,' where all of the apps that the student could be using are all hidden. They're not viewable in recent app activity or in Android on the app drawer."

Beyond deleting apps, what else can parents do? One idea is to install parental control software like "Phone Sheriff."

"Parents can access and monitor their child's accounts including text messaging, everything remotely," said Cannon. "You can monitor the child's device. Whatever's happening on that phone, you will get an email about it. You can set keywords that will notify you whenever one of those keywords has been used in a message. Some of them event allow you to monitor photographs."

Nicole Ritchie installed an app called "Secure Teen."

"Not only does it prevent cyber bullying and websites that children shouldn't be on, but I can set time limits on it, I can check her web history, where she's been and what apps she's been on. You can even block apps from 'Secure Teen'," said Ritchie. "We allow Instagram, but they're both private accounts. So, they have to okay the person and not everybody can see their pictures."

Perhaps most importantly, talk with your child about apps.

"You need to know and you need to keep an eye on your kids. You need to be aware and communicate with them about what could happen," said Pickell.

Apps to delete from your child's phone (list and comments provided by Gaggle)

Afterschool: Advertised as "Funny Anonymous School News for Confessions and Compliments" in the Apple Store, this anonymous app by Ambient is much like Yik Yak and Whisper. This app allows sexual and graphic images.

Ask.fm: A Latvian-based social networking site where members interact by inviting others to ask anonymous questions

Bang with Friends: Criticized for not delivering what it promises for adults 18 and older. The premise of the website is to discretely set up sexual encounters with Facebook friends. Those friends only know about somebody's interest when they reciprocate through the app.

ChatRoulette.com: "This website allows people to anonymously video chat online with anyone and without any security blocks or filters. Frequently people are unclothed in the chats.

Kik: An instant message service that also allows photo sharing. It is loaded with sex and porn spammers.

Meet Me: A social networking site that lets users tailor their searches for potential social contacts by age and geography.

Omegle: An instant message service that promises chats with random strangers. Also has a website that can be used instead of downloading the app.

Reddit Forums: Good and bad. Users are mostly anonymous.

Secret: App that openly suggests and allows users to "share with your friends, secretly. Speak freely." Secret connects people anonymously through their address books.

Snapchat: App that allows users to send photo and videos that the app promises disappear within seconds.

Tagged.com: A social network that teenagers use for meeting new people that allows members to browse the profiles of other members, play games, and share tags and virtual gifts. Recently in the news for "sextortion."

Tinder: A voting/photo-based location-sharing dating website often used for casual sex.

Video Kik: Send videos of any length on Kik Messenger. It is flooded with sex spammers and has become super easy for kids to access all kinds of porn.

Whisper: Intended for users age 17 and older, Whisper is an anonymous social "confessional" app that allows users to post whatever's on their mind. Users type a confession, add a background image, and share it with a user community.

Yik Yak: Similar to ask.fm, but views are limited to those geographically close to the poster. Yik Yak is now blocked in 85% of all high schools, according to the company.