(WKRG) — Kik is a smartphone messenger app popular among younger teens. But with its popularity also comes the danger of predators.

Like Instagram, Snapchat, and other messaging rivals, Kik provides free, easy, and instant connections to other users anywhere. Kik enables people to message each other one-on-one or in group chats, and to share photos, videos, and other content. By enabling people to identify themselves only by an invented username, it provides more anonymity than services such as WhatsApp, which connects people through their phone numbers.

With the veil of anonymity, Kik can become a stomping ground for predators to exploit children.

Just this week, a North Carolina man is charged with mutliple counts of cruelty toward a child after chatting with an Okaloosa County investigator posing as a teenage girl on the Kik app. In that case, the investigator spoke with 36-year-old Michael Dean Hawley for five days, and during the online chat, Hawley asked for and sent nude photos to the investigator.

Last week, two men in northwest Florida pled guilty to producing and distributing child pornography on the Kik app. 32-year-old Jeffrey W. Boone of Shalimar pled guilty to child pornography charges after an undercover FBI agent witnessed him live-streaming sexual images of a child on Kik. 44-year-old Michael J. McClure pled guilty after an undercover FBI agent witnessed him distributing images of child pornography on the app. McClure later also admitted he was engaged in a child exploitation enterprise with others on Kik who were working together to victimize multiple minors across the country during 2020 and 2021.

These criminal cases involving Kik are not unique to the northwest Florida area, and criminal cases involving the app have been happening for years. Most involve child pornography, but one case five years ago was a turning point for the app. 

In 2016, 13-year-old Nicole Lovell of Blacksburg, Va., was stabbed to death by two Virginia Tech college students whom she met on the Kik messenger app. After Lovell’s murder, the app updated a guide for parents and increased its age-appropriate rating in Apple and Google Play from 9+ to 12+.

Kik launched in 2010. In 2019, there were talks of Kik Messenger shutting down for good, until it was acquired by MediaLab that same year. MediaLab owns other online apps, including Whisper, where users can post their “secrets.”

Kik has a page on its website for law enforcement, providing answers to frequently asked questions and a link for a legal request form.

Under the safety section for parents on Kik’s website, there are articles such as “How can I prevent my teen from using Kik” and “What can I do if my teen has been sending inappropriate messages.” As far as preventing your teen from using Kik, the app suggests to parents to download another parental control or nanny app to prevent the teen from downloading Kik (though no specific apps are recommended). And if your teen is sending inappropriate messages, Kik directs parents to get their teen “to delete any images they may have saved and inform the others involved about the serious criminal consequences of possessing or distributing sexually explicit images of a minor” or call local law enforcement if they feel it’s appropriate.

As always with the safety of children and the internet, it is up to parents to monitor their children’s activities. Click here for tips from U.S. Department to keep your child safe online. 

The Associated Press contributed to this story.