Teenage dating apps are hunting ground for adult abusers

Caught in the Web: How websites offering flirting and relationship services are allowing older users and children to mix, often with no moderation

More than a quarter of children using specialist teen dating apps, some as young as 13, have been contacted by adults online, it can be revealed.

One website marketing itself at 13- to 20-year-olds – mylol.com – has breached rules governing nudity with posts including: “Do any girls want to post nudes message [sic]” and “Horny girls message me”, an investigation by The Independent has found.

Alongside graphic profile pictures of children, forums addressing troubling topics can be found on the site, which has been linked to several cases of rape and sexual assault against teenager. These included a forum asking: “Do You Like To Cut Yourself?”, which had been live for nearly two months without moderation.

The website recently lowered its upper age limit from 25 years old to 20, but without deleting users aged 21 and above – despite adults as old as 60 being found to have signed up to the service, which is popular among British teenagers and has 300,000 users worldwide.

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In its terms and conditions, mylol.com states its “private messaging system is built to detect a huge range of suspicious sexually explicit keywords... [to] see if any users are trying to engage in any illegal or inappropriate activity”.

But Claire Lilley, head of online safety at the NSPCC, said the children’s charity is “deeply disturbed that sexual predators could use teen dating apps and websites to target young people. Allowing adults and children to mix on services that are blatantly about flirting and relationships has the potential to put children at risk of abuse.”

Last year a 28-year-old man was jailed for nine years after he groomed two girls aged 14 and 15 on mylol.com, which was described by the NSPCC as a “playground for paedophiles”. Benjamin Spratt, 28, pleaded guilty to four counts of sexual activity with a child and two counts of digital and oral penetration of a 14-year-old at Croydon Crown Court.

The court heard that the licensed taxi driver used his experience as a DJ to build a rapport with teenage girls he met on the site, which is registered in Canada and defines itself as “the #1 teen dating site in the US, Australia, UK and Canada”. When Spratt’s computers were analysed, police found he had been in contact with numerous teenagers.

In November 2012, Ryan Palmer was charged with aggravated statutory rape of a child for allegedly assaulting a teenager he met on mylol.com. Palmer, 27, posed as a 21-year-old under a false name to lure his victim.

A recent survey by ChildLine asked under-16s who used dating sites and apps about their experiences. Of the 400 people who took part, it found as many as 29 per cent admitted they had been in touch with someone over the age of 18. Of those, 72 per cent said the person who contacted them online had known their real age. One in five who met someone in person after making contact through the apps said they “felt unsafe” when they saw them face-to-face.

The results of the survey came months after Tinder founder Justin Mateen admitted that seven per cent of the seven million daily “hook-up” matches on his dating app were children aged between 13 and 17, despite the privacy policy and user agreement stating members must be 18 or older. Hannah Broadbent, director of policy and strategy at Childnet, an organisation designed to make the internet safer for young people, said: “When it comes to using the internet we make young people think about the way they are sharing information with people.”

Ms Broadbent warned that the use of sites like this that use GMS technology to determine a user’s location were putting young people at risk. “Obviously they are a  range of concerns around young people meeting up with someone they have met on a dating site. If a young person is sharing their location by checking in on Twitter or Facebook to find people near by who you might be interested in, you have to be very careful.”

Claire Lilley also said the NSPCC was “calling on all teen dating apps and websites to take immediate steps to protect their young users. And if they don’t, we want advertisers to remove their business until proper precautions are in place.

“For many young people socialising on the move through mobile phone apps is part of everyday life. So it’s vital that when they sign up to an app they aren’t exposed to adult sexual content or have encounters with adults that puts them at risk of being sexually abused.”

The Independent contacted mylol.com to ask them to address concerns about the website but received no reply.

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