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How Grindr, A Popular Gay Dating App, Poses Exploitation Risk To Minors

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The dating app Grindr is a popular site for men seeking other men. It's also used by underage boys, which can put them at risk of sexual exploitation and trafficking. Here's Jenifer McKim of GBH in Boston.

JENIFER MCKIM, BYLINE: German Chavez sat in a Boston park recently describing why he downloaded the dating app Grindr when he was 13.

GERMAN CHAVEZ: My intentions were so pure and holy. But they were just like to know, like, about gay men. What do gay men eat? What do gay men like? How is it, like, growing up gay?

MCKIM: He couldn't talk to his family about his sexuality.

CHAVEZ: In my house, if you said the word gay, it was like cancer. They were going to come for you.

MCKIM: Grindr calls itself the world's largest social networking app for gay, bi, trans and queer people. It's supposed to be restricted to those 18 and older. But like many apps meant for adults, Grindr doesn't verify identities, and minors can get around the rules. That's what Chavez did.

CHAVEZ: I lied about my age. I would say that I was 18.

MCKIM: A 2018 Northwestern University study found more than half of sexually active gay and bisexual adolescent boys found sexual partners on Grindr and other apps. Grindr was by far the most popular, says lead researcher Kathryn Macapagal.

KATHRYN MACAPAGAL: Part of the reason why I think this happens is that there aren't a lot of spaces for LGBT teens online to make friends.

MCKIM: But sometimes they meet adult men who are dangerous, leading to sexual exploitation, assault and trafficking. More than 100 men across the United States have faced charges since 2015 related to sexually assaulting or attempting to meet minors for sex on Grindr. That's according to an investigation by the GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting. The list includes police officers, priests and teachers. A Grindr spokesperson said the company takes seriously its responsibilities to prevent misuse and identify misconduct. Grindr is one of many online sites where minors can be stalked. Boys and girls are victimized. But researchers say the number of male victims is vastly underreported, in part because boys are less likely to disclose their abuse.

JACK TURBAN: We see those kids in the emergency room in a mental health crisis.

MCKIM: Jack Turban specializes in adolescent LGBTQ psychiatry at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

TURBAN: They've reached a breaking point that the situation with this adult sexually exploiting them is overwhelming. But it's also way too overwhelming to tell anyone about it.

MCKIM: Turban makes it clear he's not trying to single out the gay community by focusing on Grindr.

TURBAN: If you look at the research, gay people aren't more likely to be sexual predators than straight people. That is kind of like a common homophobic myth.

MCKIM: But he says there's likely hundreds of thousands of minors nationwide using Grindr and similar apps, and families and professionals need to talk to them about how to protect themselves online. He says people who take advantage of children should be held accountable, but adult-only apps should do more to restrict access.

TURBAN: Grindr is also at fault for knowing that this is happening and not doing anything about it. So I think it's important that we have some conversations about public policy and legislation to change the current situation.

MCKIM: When he was in middle school, German Chavez says he was sexually assaulted by a 60-year-old man he met on Grindr. A year later, he says he was using the app to sell sex to help his family pay bills. He didn't see himself as a victim. Instead, he blamed himself.

CHAVEZ: When you think about it, it's like, no. Like, you're a kid. Like, you're supposed to be in high school playing. Or, like, your parents are supposed to be taking care of you. Oh, my God. I'm crying.

MCKIM: Now Chavez is in his 20s and sees himself as a mentor to gay and trans youth. One of his key pieces of advice for them - stay off Grindr and other apps meant for adults.

For NPR News, I'm Jenifer McKim in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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