Skout will reopen to teens Friday with some major changes aimed at keeping those teens safer including removing the location feature, Chief Executive Christian Wiklund said in an interview late Thursday.
The mobile flirting app that connects strangers banned minors last month after three men were accused of raping children they met through the app. The company created a separate, more protected app for 13- to 17-year-olds, who make up a significant portion of its users, but adult predators infiltrated the forum.
“What we can promise is that it’s much safer than it was before,” Wiklund said.
Teens will no longer be able to see or search by location and they will not be able to find anyone on Skout who is within 100 miles of them. They will also have to connect to Skout through Facebook. The company will verify Facebook credentials, and anyone caught lying about his or her age will be permanently banned from the service along with his or her mobile device, Wiklund said. Skout is also deleting all connections teen users had on the app, as well as all of their chat lists, favorite lists, comments and chats.
Wiklund also pledged closer monitoring of the teen app. He said Skout had hired additional community managers.
Skout will screen users more carefully to keep teens from signing up to use Skout as adults, Wiklund said.
He characterized the steps as just the beginning of an effort to keep teens safer on Skout. The company is also hiring a chief privacy officer and putting together a product team to focus on safety and privacy.
The alleged assaults on two girls, ages 12 and 15, and on a 13-year-old boy that came to light in June alarmed parents and safety advocates and underscored how tough it can be to keep children safe on a new generation of mobile apps.
Internet-related sexual crimes against youths are relatively rare and incidents such as sexual assaults are actually declining. But safety experts say mobile apps can make teens vulnerable because they combine profile information about users with GPS information from the users’ mobile phones.
Skout was originally created as a flirting app for adults, and users had to be 18 or older to sign up. The app finds strangers nearby with whom a user can swap messages, photos and virtual gifts and make plans to meet up.
But so many of the app’s users were teens — about 15%, by the company’s estimates — that last year Skout opened a separate forum for them. The company says it used a combination of automated screening and human monitoring to police the teen forum.