While playing Angry Birds, checking my Gmail or using other free apps on my iPhone, I noticed that I frequently received popup ads regarding finding singles and connecting with hot girls or hot guys in my area.  Although I wasn’t tempted to click on any of the ads, their frequency has been enough to persuade me to upgrade to the paid versions of the apps.  Although making this change was simple enough for me, the vast majority of teenagers I work with use free versions of these apps and regularly encounter ads like these as they go about their day using their mobile devices. 

Additionally, dating services like OKCupid Locals (which mixes dating matches with proximity and includes photo sharing and chat options), HowAboutWe (which allows you to post your date idea and search profiles in your area to arrange a quick meet up) and Grindr (a meet up service for “gay, bi and curious guys”) offer free apps that leverage smartphone technology to allow people to browse profile pictures, connect, chat and hookup based on their proximity to one another. 

As an article in the San Jose Mercury News reported last week: “Tom Critchlow, 28, an online marketer who lives in New York and is a frequent user of OkCupid Locals, said the downside was that ‘it is so immediate, it can give off the connotation that people only want to meet up for sex,’ something he found unsettling.  He said that while he’s had success meeting friendly women through the app for a drink or dinner, it was still hard to shake the notion that there was something sordid about scanning profile pictures ranked according to who is closest.” 

While these sites are targeting young adults, I recently talked with a 16-year-old girl who had created profiles on several similar dating sites to arrange rendezvous with older men in her area.  As she explained to me, “I like using the service because you can connect so instantly.  If can have someone to hook up with literally whenever I want to.  And most of the people that are using these apps are looking for something that moves quickly.  I rarely meet up twice with some I’ve met through [the service].”

This 16-year-old is from a good, church-going family.  Her parents never imagined that their little girl would be tempted towards the dark side of the web, so she had unrestricted access to the Internet since she was little.  Since her parents didn’t use a filter, she had early exposure to online pornography, and she had been introduced to chatrooms and sex-related chatrooms at an early age through her friends and online ads, which I believe set a path for the risky behaviors she is engaging in today.

So many parents just assume that their kids are smart enough or good enough to stay away from risky behaviors, ignoring the fact that our children are growing up in a culture where hooking up, viewing pornography and engaging in cybersex is no big deal.  Many of our teenagers are comfortable connecting with people through the Internet and apps, and they tend to trust the identities of the people they communicate with online.  They have become socialized to use the Internet as a tool to connect, which isn’t necessarily bad.  Unfortunately, when you combine the power of the Internet with teenage hormones, sense of invincibility and curiosity about sex, it can result in a risky cocktail of behaviors, which is why parents must be involved. 

Parents should be aware that their sons and daughters will likely be bombarded with ads about connecting with locals in their area for relationships and sex. Parents also need to be aware that their kids can broadcast their location and meet up with people through popular apps and services from Twitter, FourSquare, Facebook along with dating apps like the ones I mentioned.  Parents must set ground rules, get involved and checkup on their children’s online and smartphone behaviors.  We also recommend that parents use parental controls and a filter (like SafeEyes) to check up on their children’s online and mobile behaviors and to block their children from accessing problematic and sexual sites and content.