Wizz, a friend-finding app for teens, responds to 'sextortion' concerns with safety updates. Is it enough?

The issue of child safety on social media has been front and center lately, including a high-profile congressional hearing in late January.

A 13-year-old girl using her smartphone. The content she is browsing is projected in front of her.
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A social media app called Wizz that’s been popular with teens in the U.S. and Canada over the last few years is pushing back against allegations that the platform allows predators to target young users for "sextortion."

The app, which describes itself as “a safe space to meet and chat with new friends around the world,” reportedly has a core user base of 13- to 21-year-olds and aims to build “connections” among those users. However, multiple reports have criticized the app as a place where cybercriminals prey on young subscribers.

Wizz was removed from Apple’s App Store and Google Play in late January after the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCSE) raised concerns over alleged sextortion scams that were occurring on the platform. According to the FBI, sextortion is a cybercrime in which an adult convinces kids or teenagers to send them explicit images online. There can also be a financial element to it wherein the adult leverages the photos as blackmail to receive money, usually through the forms of gift cards, wire transfers or cryptocurrency.

Wizz has since been reinstated on the App Store and currently ranks in the top 20 social networking apps.

In another report, the Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI) also named Wizz along with Snapchat and Instagram as apps where cybercriminal groups were allegedly targeting their victims. In September 2023, the app, which was founded in 2019, reported it had 1.5 million daily active users.

Wizz allows its users to scroll through profiles of other people to bond over common interests. Profiles feature a photo, first name, age, state and zodiac sign. Users, who go through an age-verification process on the app, can only connect with others who are either one year older or one year younger than them.

Some publications, including the NCRI study, have described Wizz as “Tinder-like,” referring to the popular dating app that encourages users to swipe on potential partners to start a conversation, but a representative from Wizz who spoke to Yahoo News dismissed the comparison.

Wizz highlights in-app safety measures. Are they enough?

A Wizz representative pointed Yahoo News to the app’s safety guards, which in addition to age-verification technology, include written and visual content moderation and a 20-person team dedicated to addressing user-flagged content in real time.

To make an account, users have to submit to mandatory biometric age verification with a live scan of their face that must match the photo they are uploading for their profiles. (There is no official age cap to join Wizz.) More and more online platforms have started to employ similar age verification processes, including Roblox, the user-generated gaming platform. Yoti, the facial analysis service that Wizz, Facebook and Instagram use, reported in 2023 that it can estimate that people between 13 and 17 are “under 25” with 99.93% accuracy.

But that’s the problem, argues Christine Elgersma, an editor at Common Sense Media who reviews social media apps to help parents and educators understand what children are using. She told Yahoo News that none of these age-verification systems are perfect and that there are plenty of ways to circumvent the age restrictions.

“Using other pictures for your profile or being consistent and using the same [fake] photo for your profile and age verification plus whatever else you might include, I would imagine it wouldn’t trigger any red flags,” she said.

Wizz did not respond to a request from Yahoo News to verify user and ad-targeting demographics.

“Even if they’re not older adults who are somehow circumventing the system, even that age gap — if there’s a mistake, it’s a big age difference,” she told Yahoo News. “Parents should not just say, ‘Oh, great, there’s this AI system in place so it must be safe’ because that is not true.”

A Wizz spokesperson directed Yahoo News to the app’s Medium blog page where the brand countered some claims made in the NCRI report. Wizz reiterated that it does not allow any “sexually explicit” photos to be sent over the app and that it has a “zero-tolerance approach” to “offensive content and negative behavior.” The blog post also mentions Wizz’s “extensive library of banned language,” which includes “patterns and scripts” commonly used by scammers.

But Elgersma told Yahoo News that kids — and predators — have been getting around banned language on platforms for years.

“They spell something different, they use words that are close — kids can come up with their own language in order to communicate what they want,” she said. “They know those systems will look for those words and they will get banned. This is probably even easier to work around than the [age verification].”

Another new safety precaution is in-app warnings whenever users ask for or exchange contact information such as other social media handles or phone numbers. A Wizz spokesperson told Yahoo News that the company believed predators were luring victims off the app and alleged the NCRI’s reports of sextortion were referring to off-app interactions.

Elgersma has seen other apps deal with similar issues and explained it’s a common tactic for predators. She says there are advantages to pretending the relationship is developing and moving the conversation to either iMessage or Snapchat.

“It is harder to report and block that person, depending on where the interaction is taking place,” she told Yahoo News. “That is a red flag if someone is like, ‘Let’s take this to Snapchat.’ Generally, then they also have more information about you — they have another handle by which to reach you.”

What can parents do?

The issue of child safety on social media has been an ongoing conversation, especially with the high-profile congressional hearing in late January. Senators accused social network leaders like Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg, TikTok’s Shou Zi Chew, Snap’s Evan Spiegel, Discord’s Jason Citron and X’s Linda Yaccarino of being “partly to blame for the deaths of children.”

Wizz told Yahoo News the platform did not want to facilitate any conversations between users with huge age gaps, which is why there are age limits on who users can talk to.

Elgersma reiterated the importance of parental involvement. Parents should know what apps their kids are on, and kids should know when to alert an adult.

“These particular ‘just meet new friends’-style apps tend to be plagued with not just sextortion but all manner of trouble because you’re just meeting someone anonymously,” she said. “If the interaction suddenly feels uncomfortable, let your kid know that they should trust those feelings, and the conversation with a trusted adult is really important.”