Last summer in Wisconsin, a mother came home to find her 15-year-old son running up the stairs from their basement. He yelled that a man had broken into the house and raped him. A police officer apprehended Eugene Gross, who was 51 years old and H.I.V. positive, in a nearby backyard.
Authorities later learned that the teenager had met Mr. Gross on the gay hookup app Grindr and that they had met for sex before. Last month, Mr. Gross was sentenced to 15 years. The victim’s father broke down in court, saying, “The man sitting here, he destroyed my life, my kid’s life, my family life.”
It’s common for gay, bisexual or questioning minors to go online to meet other gay people. It’s normal for these kids to want to explore intimacy. But most online social networks for gay men are geared toward adults and focused on sex. They have failed to protect minors, who simply have to subtract a few years from their birth date to create a profile.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a new study in The Journal of Adolescent Health together suggest that roughly one in four gay and bisexual boys ages 14 to 17 in the United States are on gay hookup apps designed for adults (Grindr, Scruff, Jack’d, Adam4Adam). Sixty-nine percent of them have had sex with someone they met through these apps. Only 25 percent use condoms consistently. Gay kids, especially closeted ones, don’t necessarily have the opportunities for intimacy that straight kids do: classroom Valentines and first prom dates. So they go online. Though they may be looking for friends or boyfriends, they mostly find sex.
On Grindr, it’s common to receive unsolicited naked pictures. A minor can make a profile within minutes and instantly start chatting with adult men who live nearby.
Teenagers are still developing their abilities to delay gratification and control their impulses. With just 12 percent of millennials reporting that their sex education classes covered same-sex relationships, it’s not surprising that many end up having unprotected sex.
Should apps like Grindr be held accountable when minors use them? Dr. Elizabeth Englander, a psychologist, an expert on the digital lives of minors thinks yes: “It’s an ethical line and a no-brainer.”
Grindr’s terms of service state that users must be 18 or older and the app requires everyone to enter a birth date to join. But it could certainly do more to try to verify ages. Some gambling sites, for instance, make users upload a credit card or ID to prove their age. But this brings up confidentiality risks for gay men who don’t want to be out.
Grindr could also use algorithms to detect conversations between minors and adults. This would require employees to manually verify which conversations were inappropriate, but given that Grindr’s annual revenue may be as high as $77 million, the company could probably afford it.
When asked to comment, Grindr’s chief technology officer and president, Scott Chen, said that Grindr is “in the process of testing further safeguards for our account creation procedures to help ensure authentic and proper account activity, including verification through social media platforms.” He said the company takes the issue very seriously, is working on improving its screening tools and encourages users to continue reporting any “illegal or improper activity.”
This is heartening, but it isn’t enough. Age verification through social media is hardly foolproof since minors can lie about their age on Facebook, too.
In 2015, a man who had been arrested for having sex with a 13-year-old boy sued Grindr, claiming that its weak enforcement of age restrictions was to blame for the sexual encounter. The lawsuit was dismissed because Grindr is protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which means it isn’t responsible for what users say on its app (including minors lying about their age).
And Grindr is hardly the only problem — there are many similar venues. When I searched online for “gay chat,” as a lonely, closeted child might the first hit was #1 Chat Avenue. Two minutes after I opened a gay chat room, a user wrote: “Any boys 13 or 14 with cameras? I’m 35.” After some deep searching, I found that you can report activity like this to moderators, but they aren’t always online. I reported it to the site’s administrator via email, but I never heard back.
In the end, it is largely up to parents to protect their children. Unfortunately, this topic combines two of many parents’ greatest fears: sex and technology.
Parents can block apps like Grindr. But kids almost always outsmart us, and it’s probably better to educate them in addition to using parental controls.
Dr. Englander tells parents not to try to be experts on the technology. “Parents can instead be the experts on the importance of deeper in-person relationships,” she says. Explain to children that while what they find online may be exciting or interesting, they never know who’s on the other side.
Children need to hear that naked photos and videos are permanent (even when sent on Snapchat). They should know that sex between a minor and an adult is illegal. They need to be told that it’s dangerous to meet up with a person from the internet and that if they do so, they need to tell their parents and meet the person in a public place. They need to know the risk of infections from unprotected sex.
Parents also need to stay calm, so that the kids feel comfortable coming back to them if they ever end up in a bad situation, like if a scary stranger won’t stop messaging.
As a society, we have failed to create enough spaces for gay youth to thrive, pushing them online and underground. While we try to find ways to hold digital sites accountable, we need to talk to our kids about how to be safe online.
By Jack Turban (@jack_turban) is a resident physician in psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and McLean Hospital.
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A version of this article appears in print on June 14, 2018, on Page A27 of The New York Times