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Is iPhone app to blame in Vancouver teen sexual assault case?

An iPhone app is being blamed in part for the sexual assault of a local teenage boy.

A Vancouver man has been charged with sexual interference, invitation to sexual touching and sexual assault over the incident, which happened last August. What makes this tragic event “news” is that the man allegedly met his victim through an iPhone/iPod Touch app called Grindr (free on the iTunes store), which enables users to connect with other gay and bisexual men through the iPhone’s built-in location-finding capability.

The Grindr page on the iTunes app store explicitly states that it is for men 18 years of age and older. If you try to download it, up pops a warning from Apple stating that you must be at least 17 years old to download it, and the first time you activate it, another age-specific warning message appears. Yet the victim was 15 when he met the alleged perpetrator through Grindr.

As Sgt. Jeanette Theisen of the RCMP's North Vancouver Sex Crimes Unit said, “Advances in technology and social networking make it easier for our children to come into contact with individuals who may try to harm them or take advantage of them.”

It seems every new technology goes through a phase like this. The technology is introduced with cries of delight and predictions of the bright new world that will result. Because of the novelty factor, every new use and application gets its 15 minutes of fame. Then someone finds a way to use the technology for not-so-utopian ends and cries of outrage are heard. Some people bash the technology for causing the evil; others defend it, saying the incident would have happened anyway. It happened when the Internet was first opened up to non-academics, with Facebook and MySpace, with Tweeter, with ... well, practically every technology you can think of.

One of the comments posted on the ecanadanow.com site in response to the story was “Blaming a phone application for your actions and choices is like blaming a gun for shooting someone. It’s we, not some inanimate object, who ultimately decide our own actions.”

But it’s not that simple. Yes, the technology is not completely to blame, but as Sergeant Theisen pointed out, technology -- whether in the form of a location-aware app or a gun -- makes both mistakes and misdeeds easier.

Technology -- whether it’s in the form of guns, computers, cars or iPhones -- increases our power and our abilities. We need to treat it with respect and caution, and we need to ensure our children learn to handle it properly. Society has developed customs and laws governing how we use technologies such as cars and guns and it puts a special emphasis on parents and guardians -- and on the manufacturers and distributors of these technologies -- with respect to how children come into contact with these technologies. Why should we treat iPhone apps any differently?

We -- as a society, as parents and guardians, as software and hardware manufacturers and distributors -- need to consider the consequences of new technologies, especially for the most vulnerable among us. Does anybody really believe that having to press a button that says “Yes I am 17 years or older” is going to stop a vulnerable teen? And to throw the responsibility solely onto the parents or the teen himself will not work, especially when issues of sexuality are involved. How realistic is it to expect a 15-year-old to discuss with his parents whether he is gay or not?

It’s a complex issue and not one to be solved by throwing blame around -- whether at the iPhone, the developers of Grindr or the parents of the teenage boy. And it’s one more reason to be cautious when embracing any new technology. Its advantages -- in the case of Grindr an easier way to meet people -- are also its dangers.

Update: Grindr has issued the following statement regarding the incident:

 

Grindr has a very strict 18 years-and-over terms of use policy that all users of our service must agree to, additionally we actively monitor for potential violations of this policy and bar anyone who violates its terms. We voluntarily have this policy in place to help protect the safety of minors. Unfortunately, as with any Web technology, people can find ways to bypass even the most robust control mechanisms.

As an added protection, we encourage parents to add Apple’s parental controls to their children's iPod touches, iPhones and iPads to help ensure that their children cannot access 17-and-over sites and apps (please visit: http://www.apple.com/iphone/how-to/#settings.restrictions for more information).

Grindr strongly condemns the inappropriate and criminal use of our service and actively cooperates with local authorities on any alleged illegal activity on our service.”

 

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