Skout Disaster Reveals Grim Flaws in Teen Social Networks

Skout thought it was solving a problem when it created a separate social network for teens: Underage users easily circumvented the dating app's barrier to users under 18. Instead, the company found itself at the center of three cases of alleged statutory rape. Where did Skout go wrong? And what can other social apps learn from its mistakes?

Three Incidents

This week, three incidents of alleged rape bubbled up from Skout, a geosocial dating app in the vein of OKCupid and Match.com. In each case, an adult male slipped into the app's separate teen community, posing as someone between the ages of 13 and 18.

In Wisconsin, a 13-year-old boy arranged to meet with a 21-year-old man posing as a 16-year-old. In Ohio, a 15-year-old girl met with a 37-year-old who had pretended to be a teen. In the third case, a 12-year-old girl went missing and was discovered at the home of a 24-year-old she had met on Skout. All three alleged offenders have been charged with sexual crimes involving a minor. Sexual assault is historically the most underreported crime of all, suggesting that many more incidents of sexual predation facilitated by the social Web have gone unremarked.

The First Mistake

Launched in 2009, Skout now has 1 million registered users. (OKCupid, Skout's far more sophisticated rival, boasts a user base of more than 7 million.) The app was adults-only until it added teen area roughly a year ago. According to a company spokesperson, "We thought long and hard about how to set up a safe community for teens, who clearly saw value in using our app."

Most social networks that include teens keep social circles tight and accountable, not anonymous and geolocated. Neer is explicitly family-centric, shrinking Facebook's social radius down to not just the people you know but the people you know the best

Everloop offers a space for the under-13 crowd that focuses on age-appropriate games and interests.

Skout is different in that the flow started moving the other direction. After creating what it claimed was a safe space for teens between ages 13 and 18, sexual predators began moving into an isolated pool of underage users. 

Skout's Not-So-Safe Space 

Skout's difficulty sequestering adults from teens is a natural outcome of the app's lax registration process. Its age gates are flimsy at best. Anyone can sign up using only an email address. The address doesn't even have to be valid, in my experience. There's no verification process whatsoever. After signing up with a (fake) email address for the purposes of this story, I was prompted to enter my age with the default birth date of June 14, 1987, which would make me 25. That certainly saves a few seconds for any minor looking to sneak into Skout's age-gated adult site. 

Alternatively, new users can register through Facebook. If Skout required every user to log in through Facebook, the app would at least rely on that service's superior resources for barring kids under 13. But that doesn't address the problem of adult users infiltrating the app's teen community. 

In light of this week's revelations, Skout has defended its monitoring of "age-inappropriate" behavior like lewd user photos. But the ultra-lax verification system seems to say it all. The app is all about meeting up online to take your interactions offline, which is exactly what happened to the 13-year-old discovered having sex in a Milwaukee park with a man eight years his senior - after the two had already swapped nude photos.

So-called "age-inappropriate" behavior and underage stowaways are a systemic problem for any modern social network, and Skout amplified the problem by offering to pair up strangers for local, in-person hangouts. The company claims to have built "parental controls" into the teen community, but it's a stretch to imagine that parents would condone their kids using an app designed for adult sex and dating - much less kids letting a parent monitor their activity.

Too Little, Too Late?

Skout representatives are frantically "buckling down" to make their community a safer place. The company seems intent on maintaining its teen portal, which accounts for a reported 20% of its revenue. Engineers are hard at work developing further "mechanisms for age verification" as well as more forms of active content auditing. Yet, despite the energy and effort, the company seems to miss the forest for the trees: Even one reported rape is too many - never mind countless criminal encounters that may have gone unreported - and there's no way to lock down a social network 100%.

Skout created a space for its teens by roping off a portion of its existing service, but its function as an adult hookup app doesn't match up with its offering for users from age 13 to 18. A blog post from earlier this year offers dating advice equally available to adults and minors in the community: "One of the best times to socialize with others is while you’re inebriated. Unfortunately, one of the worst times to socialize with others is also while you’re inebriated. However, there’s a fine line between having one glass of wine to take the edge off, and one too many shots to take your clothes off." Great advice for adults over the age of 21... but for 13-year-olds? Really? 

Currently, Skout greets underage members with the message, "Skout teen, which is for ages 13-17, has been temporarily closed." Over 1,200 angry youths have taken up arms in the company's blog comments, demanding that the service be reinstated. According to Skout user KateyIn, "This is just going to make underage users say that they are 18." The inevitable migration to the adult-side app likely has already begun.