Sexting has come a long way in the last few years, from fuel for panicked tabloid speculation to part of our lexicon. For better or worse, sexting is now an intrinsic part of our world. But the perception many people have of this sexualised cyber-communication is wrong. Sexters, particularly young ones, have moved on from flirty texts and MMS messages. The last couple of years have seen a fundamental shift in the way young people communicate, a shift that sexting has found itself intertwined with.
The change in communication has been brought about by the inexorable rise of messaging apps. Just one or two years ago exchanging mobile numbers, or perhaps even Facebook details, was the norm, in fact it seemed that instant messaging online was going to be monopolised by Facebook. But a combination of factors undermined Facebook’s position as the go-to communication platform for teenagers, not least Facebook’s growing reputation as a stomping ground for nosy parents and tedious baby pictures.
These apps, such as WhatsApp, WeChat, KakaoTalm, Line and Kik, provide a simple way to send texts and pictures while bypassing SMS costs. The appeal of zero cost messaging has propelled messenger applications onto the phones of teenagers around the world at an extraordinary rate. WeChat has 236 million active users and WhatsApp over 300 million. Staggeringly, WhatsApp users share over 325 million images every day. Freely sending and receiving pictures over mobile apps has become the norm for a generation of youngsters.
However when it comes to sexting, one app is king – Kik. In fact there seems to be no reason to use Kik other than for risqué messaging. Kik users can use the service anonymously, with users being able to connect with each other by simply adding each other’s username. Unsurprisingly, the Kik names of young teenagers have become hot property online.
Countless sites such as hornykik.net offer lists of Kik usernames and mainstream forums are full of posts begging for Kik usernames. One thread called “Dirty & horny KIK Messenger usernames” on topix.net has almost 25,000 posts on it. While there are people claiming to be adults exchanging their Kik name, there are just as many who aren’t.
“My name is June, 15 going on 16, into younger boys. 12-17 please.:) bi guys are welcome.:) I trade pics. ;D”
“Hey, my kik is[username redacted], I would like girls 11~17 talk or trade, I just want any nice GIRL to talk to, btw im male”
“I’m 12 m lookin for a f under 15 my kik is [username redacted]”
“Kik me girls 12 and up im horny with 6″ cock [username redacted]”
“Hey girls kik me at [username redacted]I’m 15 want to trade nude pics in 15 will trade with girls ages 11-17”
Other sites like kikhorny.tumblr.com and kikme.net are places where Kik users can post their details. Again, many are looking to connect with teenagers.
“15M 6.5 inches Girls from ages 14-18 kik me, willing to do anything for you girls(; [username redacted]”
“Hi I’m 14 F CA Looking to chat with anyone around my age If you’re lucky I’ll trade .Kik : [username redacted]”
More disturbing than these sites that cater to kik users looking to sext are the countless other chat facilities throughout the web where predators target young people for their Kik names in environments they should be safe in. The problem is particularly prevalent in the chat facilities of online games.
The Kernel asked a former moderator, who helped out on apps by a major gaming company, to describe what his role was like.
“People using the in-game messaging systems to harass young players for their Kik username is a huge problem. Developers aren’t interested in stopping their users, who include 12 and 13 years olds, exchanging contact info with the intent of sexting each other. Unpaid volunteers work late into the night to try and safeguard the users, but to no avail. Users may get banned for a day, maybe a week – but they always come back. At the company I helped at, the developers actually said ‘we’re not going to do anything about this because we will lose money.’”
It’s not like Kik or the app stores that distribute it are unaware of Kik’s potential for abuse, as these reviews left recently on the Google Play store demonstrate.
On the surface, the use of messaging apps may seem like an incremental shift from SMS and social media messaging services, but they are altering young people’s perception of communication. Fast and unlimited phone to phone messaging, augmented by photos, is now the norm for a generation of teenagers. Throw in anonymity and companies with no interest in safeguarding teens from predators and it has the potential to become a dangerous mix. Only time will tell how being constantly hit on for their anonymous nom de guerre will affect today’s youngsters.