Social networks have changed the way people use the Internet, and opened up a whole new realm of opportunities to connect with family, friends, and others with similar interests. However, when you combine social networking with check-ins or location-aware features it can be risky.
Skout, an app devoted to finding people nearby to flirt with, has shut down access to minors following three separate reports of sexual assault. In all three cases—which occurred in three different states—male predators posed as teenagers to seek out victims through the social app.
Problems like this are not entirely uncommon, and certainly are not unique to Skout. Apps like Highlight and LocalMind also integrate social networks and location-aware functionality to connect you with people and events near you that might be of interest. Apps like these also have the potential to expose you to unnecessary risk.
The concept can be awesome when it works according to plan. It might be nice to know if someone you’re connected with on Facebook happens to be a block away so you can have the chance to meet up in person and grab a cup of coffee. These apps can also help you connect and expand your social network by hooking you up with others like friends of friends through your existing social network, or by finding people with the same hobbies or interests as you. They use technology to help you build real-life relationships.
However, sharing your current location through an app, and meeting up with strangers just because an app says they’re close by can seriously backfire if you’re not careful. You’re probably safe meeting a high school classmate for a beer, but you might want to think twice about meeting a friend of a friend, or some random stranger who also happens to like Green Day.
With Highlight you can manage the privacy by choosing whether your profile should be visible to everyone nearby using Highlight, or just friends of friends. Highlight also lets you know how many friends you have in common with a contact. If you only have one friend in common, that might not instill enough confidence to meet up in person. However, if you share five or ten friends it would seem to be more likely that there’s a reason you have so many contacts in common.
When it comes to Skout, the challenge is different. The whole point is to find people nearby to flirt with and possibly go out with. By definition, the people you hook up with on Skout are probably not going to be a part of your existing social network. You do have control, though, over whether or not a given contact can see your location or personal details. Just use caution and discretion before exposing your information to strangers.
For the minors using Skout–like the three involved in the sexual assault incidents–the same rules apply more or less when it comes to choosing whether or not to share information. However, it’s equally important that parents be aware of what their children are doing, and who they’re communicating with from their mobile devices.