You’re probably on Facebook. You know about Instagram and Snapchat. You’re familiar with Whatsapp and Twitter. Maybe you even know about Finsta.
But have you heard of Kik?
Kik is the secret messaging app most parents don’t know about. For millions of teens in the U.S., it’s quickly gaining steam as a popular way to chat. Unfortunately, it’s also gaining notoriety at the same time.
Adolescents like Kik because they can chat with their friends, send pictures quickly, participate in groups, play games with friends, and more —while staying as anonymous as they’d like to be. Like AOL Instant Messenger back in the day, Kik is only linked to a username, no phone number required (in contrast to many other apps, like WhatsApp). This helps them avoid their parents’ prying eyes. If and when a parent checks their phone to see who they’re texting, they’re likely going to open the standard text messaging icon. They may open Whatsapp, too. But they’re not going to think of opening Kik, because most parents don’t even know it’s a messaging app.
However, the same reasons adolescents like Kik is why child predators like Kik: the secrecy. Pedophiles and predators can flirt with random teens or tweens they find, while staying as anonymous as they like, because there is no phone number attached to their account—just a username.
Dangers of Kik
How do they find the teens, if you need their username to message people?
For one thing, many predators will simply message random usernames, hoping they will bite. However, many teens will join public groups on Kik. For example, fan-based groups like #JustinBieber or #GameofThrones, or game-based ones like #PokemonExperts, are popular among teens and tweens. This exposes their usernames to all the members of the group. Other times, adolescents themselves will advertise their own Kik profiles. They may willingly cross-post their Kik username or Kik code on other social media sites like Facebook. Or, they may use a third-party “Username Finder For Kik” app to help boost their profile.
This is why Kik has become a breeding ground for sexual propositions, pornography, cyberbullying, child abuse, and more. Several years ago, 13-year-old Nicole Lovell from Virginia was murdered by an 18-year-old “boyfriend” she met on Kik. Lovell planned to sneak away with a teen she had been speaking to on Kik. This 18-year-old Virginia Tech college freshman ended up murdering her.
Staying Safe on Kik
Discourage your teen from sharing their Kik name on social media, or advertising it among Kik itself. Tell them to be wary about joining public groups. This simply invites messages from predators.
There are also a number of measures your teen can take right from the beginning when they sign up for Kik. Encourage your teen to pick a screen name that’s not connected to their real name. (For example, if their name is Alexa, don’t choose Lexy1214 or Alexa32.) In addition to a username, Kik also asks for one’s display name: Even if choosing to share your real name, it’s a good idea not to include your last name, because this information is shown to whoever you start a new chat with. Upon signup, Kik also asks for a phone number in order to match you to other friends in your contacts who also have Kik, but teens can decline this.
Kik also has a “New Chats” feature that helps filter messages from new people your teen has never chatted with before. This feature places all new messages in a separate section, and the content of those messages will be blurred until your teen decides to respond to the new person. Otherwise, teens can delete the message, block the username, and/or report it as spam.
Monitoring Your Teen
Can you monitor the messages your teen is getting? According to Kik, it is impossible to see what messages are being exchanged without having access to your adolescent’s actual phone and their Kik password. A parent can’t access their teen’s Kik on a different device, even if they know the username and password.
In any case, tell your teen never to share personal information with people they never met. That includes their address, phone number, or personal photos. On that note, talk to your teen about their personal profile photo. Make sure it’s one you find appropriate. According to Common Sense Media, predators target adolescents who post revealing pictures. To learn more about privacy on Kik, read their Guide for Parents.
Mental Health and Social Media Use
In an investigative report by CBS’ 48 Hours, the mother of the murdered 13-year-old, Nicole Lovell, said that her daughter seemed to be “always on her phone.” She also added that Nicole hated going to school because classmates would bully her. CBS, showing screenshotted images from Nicole’s phone, reported that she often posted suicidal thoughts and statements on social media, in addition to photos of her in tears.
“She had emotional scars,” said her mother.
Mental health conditions and emotional struggles often find their escape in social media. Depression has been linked to heavy social media use. And it’s no wonder why: if real life isn’t going so smoothly, at least online it is. Teens who don’t feel liked at school or happy at home may find the world of social media alluring, where so many strangers seem to like them. Here, they can get the attention they’re craving. Perhaps this is why many teens and adolescents spend time on Kik. With its relative anonymity and ease of communication between strangers, teens in need of love or attention find Kik the perfect place for finding it.
Online Safety and Your Teen
But even adolescents without mental health concerns can find social media attractive. That’s why we encourage all parents to monitor their teen’s social media usage. For tips on ensuring your teen is safe online, and how to make sure social media and networking don’t have a negative effect on your teen’s emotional health, check out this list of helpful tips from The Child Mind Institute.
And if your adolescent seems depressed and is spending a lot of time on social media, perhaps it’s time for a full clinical evaluation. Mental health issues can arise from a variety of sources, including bullying, problems with family, issues at school, ADHD and more. Talk to a mental health professional to see if your child can benefit from an intensive outpatient, partial hospitalization, or residential treatment program specializing in adolescents.