Zachery Anderson was 19 when he clicked the “heart” on a picture of a 17-year-old girl who turned up in his matches on the dating app “Hot or Not.” That click would come to play an outsize role in his life when the girl turned out to be 14–a fact he discovered only after they met and had sex, the New York Times reported. The age of consent in Michigan–where she lives and where they hooked up–is 16.
Anderson pled guilty to criminal sexual conduct and was sentenced to 90 days in jail, but his real term has only just begun. Like most people convicted of sex crimes in the U.S., he’ll be required to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life and comply with all the attendant restrictions. He’ll have to keep his distance from places where children might gather, like schools and parks. (Out-of-bounds residences now include his parents’ house.) During his five-year probation, he won’t be allowed to access the Internet–a particularly painful mandate for Anderson, who’s an aspiring computer scientist.
Neither the girl nor her mother wanted Anderson to be prosecuted, and the judges quoted in the Times piece seem more interested in punishing Anderson for pursuing casual sex and using the Internet as a dating tool than determining whether he belongs on a list of pedophiles. “That seems to be part of our culture now. Meet, hook up, have sex, sayonara. Totally inappropriate behavior. There is no excuse for this whatsoever,” one judge is quoted as saying.
Anderson’s case raises questions not only about whether the restrictions on convicts are out of proportion and whether consensual sex between teenagers should be criminalized, and it also renews the debate about whether dating apps–particularly sites like Hot or Not, which is geared toward teens–might take stronger measures to verify users’ ages. A spokesman for Hot or Not told Women in the World that users between the ages of 13 and 17 can’t interact with or even see the profiles of 18-and-older users–though the girl was posing as a 17-year-old when she and Anderson connected. (The company did not respond to Women in the World’s question about that.) “Users can only sign up to Hot Or Not via their Facebook, so this is used as a first step to verify their ages,” a spokesman said in an email. There does not appear to be a second step.
Hot or Not, like Tinder and Hinge, imports users’ date of birth from Facebook. Though Facebook ostensibly bars children under the age of 13, birthdays are self-reported and millions of its users are thought to be underage. One study last year found that half of children 10 and under were on social networking sites.
This is hardly the first time a dating app has facilitated an underage hook-up; the issue has been around about as long as people have been using the Internet for sex, which is to say as long as the Internet has been widely available. But under a 1996 federal law, according to Forbes, websites aren’t liable for the content posted by third parties. Last year, 52-year-old William Saponaro–after being sentenced to 20 years in prison for having sex with a 13-year-old Grindr user–sued the app for allowing the victim to misrepresent his age, and failing to enforce its own age restriction policies (under-18-year-olds are supposed to be barred from the site). In March, a federal court found Grindr not liable in the case.
Forbes also pointed out a similar 2007 case in which the website SexSearch.com was, on the basis of the same law, excused from facilitating an illegal hookup between an adult man and an underage woman representing herself as over 18.
Three years ago, the dating site Skout came under fire after three men posed as teens in order to connect with actual teens. Skout briefly shut down its service for teens, but reopened just a month later, saying it had strengthened its age verification by relying more heavily on…Facebook.
It isn’t necessarily impossible to verify people’s ages online. Some porn sites–which can be liable for purveying obscene material to minors–require customers to enter credit card information or driver’s license numbers. The U.K. porn industry recently proposed a new system of age verification involving users’ bank information or even medical records.
Hot or Not has not, so far, been implicated in the Anderson case, and precedents suggest that it wouldn’t be found liable anyway. But as dating sites become more and more popular–and as they become an accepted part of hook-up culture for younger Internet users–it might be time to reconsider whether dating apps might play a bigger role in weeding out underage users.