HALIFAX – A warning is being issued to Halifax parents about an instant messaging application with the potential to encourage online sexual exploitation.
Kik Messenger is a popular smartphone app intended for people 17 and older, but many users appear to be much younger than that — between 11 and 15 years old.
Texts and images sent through it can’t be viewed publicly as with Facebook and Twitter, and anyone can send messages to anyone else whether or not they know each other.
The Canadian Centre for Child Protection (CCCP) issued a warning this week about Kik, saying an automated computer program called a spambot was sending sexual images and explicit content to users and asking them for it as well.
Josh Morin started using Kik a year ago to chat with friends, but one day he received an explicit message.
“I thought Kik was just a safe texting thing that you can use to talk to your friends, but apparently not,” he said.
The 12-year-old blocked and deleted the user then he notified his parents.
“They just said to be careful on Kik. If you’re going to use it, be careful,” he said.
The same thing happened to his classmate Haleigh Olivia MacIsaac, who said she received a message of sexually explicit nature.
“I didn’t really care. I deleted it,” she said.
However, she did not tell her parents because “they would freak out.”
Other young people said there are risks to using the app.
Dawson Miller, 13, likes using Kik because it’s free to use, but he has heard of people using it for inappropriate reasons.
“I’ve heard a lot about sexual interactions on Kik and all that stuff. I haven’t ever seen any but I’m aware of it,” he said.
Dreu MacKay, 13, said he tries to be careful when on Kik and notes his parents are aware he uses the instant messaging app.
“Sometimes people message me, people I don’t know whatsoever, I’m just like eh,” he said. “I pretty much just delete them.
The dangers of Kik are what prompted the Halifax Regional School Board to tweet a warning for parents.
Spokesperson Doug Hadley said the school board wants to make sure parents are aware of what their kids are doing on their smartphones.
“Anytime you’re talking about potentially sharing images and potentially putting young people at risk, we just feel it’s in our best interest to try and share that information with parents,” he said.
“The biggest worry is someone will share personal information about themselves or images of themselves with someone who is not known to them or is interested in using those images or information for reasons that are not in that student’s interest.”
Hadley said he is not aware of any situations within HRSB involving Kik Messaging.
However, Const. Pierre Bourdages of the Halifax Regional Police said the force has received several complaints about the app.
He said some are still under investigation, though no charges have been laid.
“Obviously if we have a 40-something man communicating with a 12-year-old girl, first of all it’s creepy,” he said.
“Secondly it could become criminal if sexual advances or if the messaging were turning more towards the sexual side.”
One way to reduce the risk is to adjust the settings of the app to block unknown users from contacting you.
But users like Morin said it comes down to being smart about how you use your smartphone and who you talk to.
“I’m going to be a lot more careful using Kik now,” he said.
Kik Messenger sent the following statement to Global News:
“We are aware of this campaign which originates on other networks such as Snapchat, and we are actively taking steps to protect our users’ experience on Kik. Like all mobile networks we are constantly working on new tools and ways identify and block spam users so Kik continues to be a fun and safe way for our users to talk with their friends.”
“The Ignore New Users feature allows users to hide messages they receive from people they’ve never talked to before, both legitimate users and bots, and turn off notifications for those messages. If a Kik user doesn’t want to ever see an inbound message from someone they don’t know – they never have to.”