Thousands of Australian children have direct access to pornographic videos housed on a popular music app aimed at teens – and their parents are clueless to the dangers, a leading cyber safety expert has warned.
The New Daily obtained a login for Musical.ly and within 30 minutes had located dozens of videos depicting explicit sexual activity and several instances clearly depicting underage full-frontal and partial nudity. In one video, a girl identifying herself as 11 years old dances suggestively above a comment that includes the hashtags “#f.ckme” and “#f.ckgirl” (our censorship, not the app’s).
The app’s developers told The New Daily they “prioritise the safety of our users” and “take appropriate measures to expeditiously remove offensive or inappropriate content” from Musical.ly.
“When a user flags content as inappropriate, it is removed within 15 minutes,” a spokesperson said, adding that developers were also implementing “machine-learning technology” to block inappropriate content.
The New Daily flagged two videos – depicting underage nudity and female masturbation, respectively – as inappropriate and requested they be removed, providing detailed reasoning. At the time of writing 10 days later, the flagged content was still visible.
Additionally, hundreds of easily-found and frequently ‘liked’ examples of pornography that would fit any definition of ‘inappropriate content’ have not been removed in the week since we first logged in.
Expert issues strong warning
Susan McLean, a former policewoman who now teaches cyber safety to schoolchildren and their parents, says the Musical.ly app is phenomenally popular among both pre-teen and teenage children and especially girls, despite hosting content including depictions of hardcore sex, underage nudity and alleged self-harm.
The app is highly popular because it encourages users to video themselves lip-syncing and dancing along to popular music, creating a ‘musical’ which is then uploaded to the app for other users to view, ‘like’ and comment upon.
“Sexual predators no longer trawl apps like Facebook or Instagram, because they’re so heavily regulated now. The sort of stuff you’ve seen on Musical.ly wouldn’t last for two minutes on those apps. The predators have gravitated to apps like Muscial.ly where they know there’s a high percentage of young children and no active policing,” Ms McLean says.
Up to 14 million new videos are uploaded to the site every day, which is age-rated ‘12+’ by the developers despite the law in Australia clearly stating that children must be at least 13 to access any form of social media. Many of the music videos currently featured on the site show children who are clearly under 12.
Ms McLean says the slick, brightly coloured app appeals to children with fun and quirky functions, but has several concerning issues that many parents are not aware of, and which the app’s developers have failed to fix in spite of numerous complaints and many news stories detailing a litany of issues.
‘How did you find it?’
In a separate email, a man identifying himself as one of the app’s co-developers, Alex Zhu, asked how we discovered the inappropriate content.
“For the porn contents you have seen on the platform, how did you find them? Did you find them through search?” Mr Zhu wrote.
“We need to know this to analyse why we were not able to capture them at the first place, and will optimize our content monitoring process/technologies accordingly.”
Says Ms McLean: “It’s pretty telling that they clearly have no idea what’s going on within their own app. They don’t even know where it is! They clearly have woefully inadequate security procedures in place.”
Used in schools
Another major concern for Ms McLean is a recently added sub-section of the Musical.ly app called Lively, which allows any user to host a live stream visible to other Musical.ly users.
She has been told of at least one recent instance of a child allegedly threatening to self-harm while thousands of users from around the world watched, and there have also been reports that the function has featured underage nudity.
“I had a woman in Quebec get in touch with me, distraught because there was a girl from Brisbane who was threatening to self-harm on a live stream,” Ms McLean says. “There is no editing, no filtering for this function, which children can use in any way they choose. It needs to be banned.”
Ms McLean’s advice to parents is simple: “Don’t be a parent with regrets. I deal with them all the time and it’s hard to explain to them that they can’t undo the damage done.
“If your child is under 13, get off it. It’s already illegal, and there are things on there that they just shouldn’t see. If they’re over 13, get on it yourself and convince yourself you’re happy with the environment. I certainly wouldn’t want my child exposed to it.”
Steve Colquhoun is the former editor of Executive Style at Fairfax Media. He is now a freelance journalist who tweets at @stevekahuna.