On Friday, June 14, a 22-year-old man named Joseph Robert Meili was sentenced to five years of supervised probation after being found guilty to third-degree child molestation of an 11-year-old girl as part of a plea deal. In July of 2017, Meili picked up the 11-year-old girl (whose identity is being protected because she is a minor) in their home state of Missouri after meeting her through a dating app which she reportedly accessed through her mother’s phone. How did an 11-year-old get access to this kind of dating app? While deeply troubling, this scenario is sadly very possible and likely connected to the specific way certain dating app companies try to market their products.
During her testimony last week, the victim told police she fell asleep at Meili’s but woke up “feeling like something sexual had happened.” Meili then dropped her off. Later, she tested positive for chlamydia. When Meili was charged for the sexual assault he told the police and prosecutors that he thought she was 18, due to what her profile on the app stated was her age. He then said he believed that she was still 18 when he saw her in person. She was not 18. She was 11. Meili will be required to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. He will serve no prison time, despite the fact that in Missouri, the typical prison sentence for third-degree child molestation is anywhere from three to 10 years.
Meili’s lawyer told People Magazine, “Prosecutors state that the victim and the victim’s family were not opposed to probation here. They did not want the book thrown at him.”
They met on the app MeetMe, a dating app that was on the young girl’s mother’s phone. How she accessed her mother’s phone, made her own dating profile, and used it to meet someone off the app without her mother knowing is troubling. MeetMe is described as an app to “meet, chat, and have fun with new people — for free!” and is described as an app to “chat and make new friends,” not specifically for dating.
While Tinder, another popular dating app, pretty explicitly markets itself as an app for romantic relationships (“Single is a terrible thing to waste,” is their infamous tagline) MeetMe seems to market itself as “the best app for finding new friends to chat with” and occasionally flirt. So, it makes sense that an 11-year-old who does probably know her way around phones would download the app, given that social networking is all about “making new friends.”
How she confirmed her age as 18 to get on the app is a mystery, but if she used a text verification tool, it could have gone straight to her mom’s phone. Additionally, many dating apps or online platforms tend to have very flimsy age verification requirements, some of which include just verifying your own age by yourself. Parents should always remember to not let their underage kids use phones, screens, or computers unsupervised, remind them of stranger danger, look out for signs of grooming, and be on alert, even if it’s not their own phone.
After all, people do need to go on dates sometimes — they just need to make sure that their kids aren’t getting on those apps, too.