(USA TODAY) -- Federal authorities and parents are scrutinizing a popular teen messaging app following the murder of a Virginia teen who may have met her killer via the anonymous chat system.
Police arrested two Virginia Tech students in connection with the death of Nicole Lovell, 13, whose body was found three days after she snuck out of her home Jan. 27.
Authorities declined to discuss how the college students met the teen. Lovell's mother said her daughter likely connected with the suspects online. The Roanoke Times reported Lovell shared her Kik username on at least one online teen dating site and friends told the Associated Press she was using the app to chat with an 18-year-old man.
The company confirmed Thursday it turned over data to the FBI and local police investigating the case, but declined to specify what information it had provided.
"Kik cooperates with law enforcement to combat child predators anywhere in the world, either upon provision of a court order, or in emergency situations such as this one," the Ontario, Canada-based company said in a statement.
"We are in frequent dialogue with law enforcement authorities to further ensure that our channels of cooperation are as open as they can be while respecting user privacy."
Child-safety experts say focusing on Kik alone won't solve an ever-changing problem.
"It's not about the latest app. Because it's not the app that's dangerous. It's the decisions, the actions they're taking on these apps that are dangerous," said Ju'Riese Colon, executive director of outreach at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "It's not about teaching kids not to use a specific app. It's about teaching them not to give this kind of information out."
Why do teens love Kik?
Kik is popular with kids because it offers almost no effective parental monitoring and lacks controls to prevent children from using it. The messages cannot be automatically duplicated or "mirrored" to another device and only the authorized user has access. That means there's no way for a parent to see the message exchanges without getting the password from their kid.
While the app says it's limited to anyone 13 or older, there's no age verification process: users only need an email address and can pick whatever birthdate they want to use. The company said it uses "typical" industry standards for age verification and will delete accounts of anyone younger than 13 if it finds them, or it a parent requests it.
"It is not plausible to have perfect age verification for users," the company said in a statement. "However, Kik believes that its registration process played no role in the unfortunate death of this child."
Unlike many phone-based messaging apps, Kik doesn't require a phone number, just a user-selected name. That means it can be used on non-phone devices such as Kindles, iPads or iPod Touches, making it harder to monitor.
"Now, because of anonymity, any 60 year-old-guy can pretend to be a 15-year-old-kid," said Robert Lotter, the creator of the "My Mobile Watchdog" service, which helps parents monitor internet use. "You can basically connect to anybody."
When you give your kid a phone, "it's almost like taking your front door off your house," he added.
How can parents protect their kids?
A newly updated guide for parents posted on the company's website Thursday explains how the app works and offers suggestions for monitoring its use. Among the recommendations: Parents should ask their children for the password, review recent messages and block anyone sending inappropriate messages.
"We understand that our Kik users need to feel safe and respected when they use our services, and we take the safety of our users very seriously," the company said. "Unfortunately, inappropriate behavior is a risk with any kind of communication platform."
The company also offers guidance on how to report suspected illegal activity to police, and explains how parents can request an account be deleted.
Colon said kids love using the Internet because they receive attention they might not be getting elsewhere. In those cases, parents need to be extra careful to ensure the conversations are appropriate, and to teach kids that unsupervised meetings with strangers they've found online is "a recipe for disaster."
"They want to be loved and want to have friends and don't see the dangers we might see as adults," Colon said. "A lot of kids feel a lot more comfortable online."
How many people use the app?
Kik, founded in 2009 by Canadian college students, says 40% of its 240 million users are U.S. teens. The company was valued at $1 billion during a round of investment-capital expansion last summer, when it drew a $50-million investment from a Chinese internet company.
Lotter said parents need to ensure they're monitoring kids' Internet use and regularly talk about what's appropriate. Several people recently posted on the Kik download page on iTunes asking the company to change the way the app works to improve child safety.
"There's thousands of apps like this, and the reality is that Instagram isn't much different than Kik, once you understand the underlying technology," he said. "Last year we were talking about Snapchat. Next year we'll be talking about something else."