By Lisa Barr
I'm an optimist, a Cup Half-Full person. There are, however, a few things I really hate -- and topping my list are pedophiles/predators. Nowhere are they more prevalent but online, on apps, in chat rooms, and I'm learning ... on blogs (but that's another story).
For those who have been following my blogs these past six months, you know two things about me: If something is dangerous or hurtful to kids -- I will expose it. If something hurts our relationships -- you will find it here on this blog in the raw, no holding back.
The other day, a Mom contacted me, and proceeded to tell me a story about how her gay cousin, who is in his late 40s, was visiting her from out of town, and they were having dinner. She noticed he was staring at various pics on his phone -- on an app she had never seen before called Grindr (yeah, no "e"). The gist of it ... it is a gay "meet" site. You send photos of yourself with a description and the app tells you how close in proximity another person who is "of interest" is to you ... ie. Steve X is 480 feet away ... and if you're IN and he's IN a connection will be made -- ideal for a coffee or a quickie. This is the "gay, bi, or curious" site -- its heterosexual counterpart is called Blendr (note, no "e" ).
Blendr/Grindr -- what we have here, my friends, is a Cuisinart of Booty Call.
Now here's the story ... the Mom noticed a few familiar married men advertising themselves on Grindr, and while that was definitely fodder for conversation, what stopped her in her tracks was when she noticed two BOYS on there as well -- a 14 and a 15 year old masquerading as 18 year olds -- the mandated age for the site. She knew their parents, she knew the boys, she knew they were lying -- and she was scared for them. They were clearly living out their "secret" on the edge of potential danger.
What to do?
She called a close friend of one of the boy's Moms and told her what she had seen -- that Mom alerted the boy's parents who found out the hard way that their eighth grade son was soliciting male "friendships."
These two boys are too young to truly comprehend the dangers of being picked up -- and I wondered how many more under-aged boys there are on Grindr -- and what protection, if any, is Out There.
I called a local detective in my town, who is very active with teaching kids -- particularly middle-schoolers -- about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.
"Is this legal?" I asked Marci Landy, a detective with the Deerfield Police Department. "And if so, how do we protect our kids?"
Detective Landy explained that if the boys are saying they are 18 on the site, and someone picks them up believing they are 18 -- it is very difficult to prosecute if the boys are misrepresenting themselves.
"It is sad and unfortunate," Landy said. "Facebook subscribers, for example, need to be 12 years old -- do you know how many sixth graders who are NOT 12 are on Facebook? We would need a national force to go after all of them. And in this case, if the kids are lying about their age, there is nothing we can do. If, however, a man knowingly picks up a youngster -- and we can prove it -- then that's a different story. For example if the boy says to the solicitor, 'I can't meet you because I have to take my finals or I have a track meet after school' -- alluding to the fact that he is only in junior high or high school -- that is indeed grounds for police intervention."
I then contacted Jordy Shulman, 17, a high-school senior who co-wrote the "Mom, I'm Gay" article (GIRLilla Warfare, September 12) and asked him a slew of questions: Did he know about Grindr (YES) , and how do we protect our teenagers?
Here's Jordy's take on GRINDR:
"Over the past couple of years, online dating and flirting has become immensely popular. Why waste time going out and meeting people, when you can just see someone you like online and 'message' them? For many people, this method is convenient and an easy way to meet others. But for some, this method can come off as particularly 'sketchy' and unsafe.
Grindr, an app for mobile devices, is designed for gay men to meet other gay men within your area. When on Grindr, the first thing you see are rows of pictures with names under them. A lot of these pictures range from a normal-looking teen, smiling, to a shirtless 50-year old.
But the real question is if the person displayed in the picture is actually that person in reality. Whether the 18-year-old named “John” is actually a 14-year-old named “Jake”.
It is the unknown that can be extremely scary.
This, however, is not to say that Grindr is not used by men for its original purpose. A lot of single gay men out there use this app to meet other gay men, in hopes to meet them in real life and date. One could say that Grindr is an equivalent to a website like eHarmony.com, or Match.com, just with less restrictions and policies.
About a year ago, I thought that it would be a cool idea to see what this app was all about. I had never been exposed to a strictly gay social networking site before, and I felt that it would be interesting to see what it was like. I thought that it could possibly benefit me as a young gay teen.
I was wrong.
Right from the beginning, I knew that this app was not safe by any means. There were times when men much older than me would send me a message, and it made me feel uncomfortable -- it was not what I thought it was going to be.
To me, Grindr came off as extremely offensive and hurtful, because of how people only message you from knowing what you look like. If you don’t fit into someone else’s 'criteria' then you’re worth nothing to them. This led me to learn that Grindr was also primarily used for people wanting to 'hook up' which I also felt was extremely risky.
People on Grindr lie about their age -- it’s that simple. A gay teen who believes that he is meeting up with a fellow teen, could very well be meeting up with a man who is much older. I know that if my parents found out I was using this, they would be extremely worried.
I deleted my account a couple of days after making one.
Being a closeted gay teen can be extremely difficult. You feel closed in, with nothing to rely on, and you feel that no one understands you. You want so badly to be accepted, and for people to think of you as any other person. You wish that dating would be as easy as any straight guy dating a girl, but it is far from it. Teens are turning to apps like Grindr because they feel that it is the only way for them to be open within a community.
If I were to give a piece of advice to a struggling teen, I would say that something like Grindr would only put you in a position of possibly engaging in risky and inappropriate behavior.
Grindr can be a place that is very unsafe, and isn’t something that would make you feel better about yourself. I know how hard it is -- I’ve been there. But closeted gay teens need to know that things will get better, without the help of apps such as Grindr. In fact, you’re better off without it. Focus on school. Focus on your friends. Focus on your passions. Gay or straight, social networking sites that are geared towards sexual encounters are dangerous for teens of any age or any orientation."
For those parents who may be looking for a way to help but not wanting in any way to hurt a "closeted" gay teen -- Detective Landy had a great suggestion that will provide a student with an avenue of confidentiality: Call the school counselor.
"These counselors must maintain confidentiality," Landy explains. "The counselor can meet with the teenager privately and explain why these sites can lead him or her down the wrong path. The counselor will also explain the repercussions of solicitation and predators -- without having anyone reveal a secret."
Parents: Underaged means inexperienced and unable to truly recognize a predator. If you have the ability to check out your kid's cell phone -- do it. Keep an eye out for Grindr, Blendr -- and other cyber Eye Candy apps which promise meeting not The One ... but the One Right Now.
I know this all sounds a bit alarmist -- like Big Brother and Neighborhood Watch -- but as parents of teenagers -- we really do need each other. It does take a village to raise a kid.
Lisa Barr is the editor of GIRLilla Warfare: A Mom's Guide to Surviving the Suburban Jungle (www.girlillawarfar.com), and author of "Fugitive Colors" (historical suspense, available on Amazon).