The murder of Nicole Madison Lovell, a 13 year-old girl from Blacksburg, Va., who police say connected with her alleged killer through social media, has triggered a storm of parental nightmares about cyberbullying, online predators, and a constantly-changing landscape of date-and-rate sites where kids seek affirmation not from friends and family, but strangers.
In their rush to shut down teens' access to sites and services such as Facebook, Instagram, and Kik, however, some say well-meaning parents are blaming the messenger. Kids' social media obsession may be relatively new, but their adolescent needs aren't, say experts. And the keys to teen safety aren't simply found in parental rules and site blockers.
"A kid’s psycho-social makeup, and home and school environment, are better predictors of online risk than any technology a child uses," says Anne Collier, the president of Net Family News Inc. and founder of iCanHelpline, a social media resource for schools. "It’s much more about child and adolescent development than it is about technology," she says, stressing that what's changed today isn't kids' needs or behavior, so much as the fact that it's on open display online.
Virginia Tech engineering freshman David Eisenhauer was arrested for kidnapping and killing Nicole, a bullied middle schooler who, neighbors say, had turned online for attention and affirmation. She was teased at school about her weight and surgery scars, often making her ask to stay at home. A second Virginia Tech engineering student, Natalie Keepers, has been charged with being an accessory before the fact to first-degree murder, and with helping to dispose of Nicole's body, which was found off a North Carolina road four days after she left home on Jan. 27.
Lawyers and police have said little about Eisenhauer's possible motives, or how he knew Nicole. "Eisenhauer used this relationship to his advantage to abduct the 13-year-old and then kill her," police said in a statement.
Comments from family and neighbors, however, point to Nicole's sometimes-worrying behavior online, and through phone apps like Kik, an instant-messaging service. Like thousands of other young girls, Nicole had offered herself up for appraisal on sites like "Teen Dating and Flirting," a Facebook page sometimes used by adult predators. "Cute or nah?" she posted alongside a picture of herself, to mostly negative replies.
Children who played with Nicole shortly before she disappeared later told police that Nicole had bragged about an 18 year-old boyfriend she'd met through Kik, and planned to meet "IRL": in real life.
"I didn’t think it was real," an eight-year-old neighbor told the New York Times. "I was like, 'You shouldn’t do that.'"
"Unfortunately, we see it every day," Fairfax County, Virginia Police Lt. James Bacon told the Washington Post's Petula Dvorak, referring to sexual predators trying to connect with potential victims through apps like Kik, including a former State Department official.
Some groups lay blame on the tech companies, whose safety and age-minimum policies often prove hard to enforce. Other parents are tightening up rules about kids' social media use, or curtailing certain apps altogether.
Kik, along with Instagram and Snapchat, are popular with younger teens, and it's difficult to keep underage users from signing up. Even kids whose parents closely monitor their activity on sites such as Facebook often use smartphones with different accounts that predators may have access to, Adam Lee, special agent in charge of the FBI in Richmond, told the Associated Press.
"Kids are crafty," Lee said. "They will have one account parents have access to, and half a dozen they shield from their parents' view."
Concern, but not panic, is in order, most teen researchers say. But some are pointing out that the "control and cut off" approach to monitoring media use misunderstands not just teenagers, but the on- and offline world we live in, where hard lines between the two aren't nearly as clear as just a few years ago. And longterm solutions to online privacy and safety have much more to do with what's instilled in children than the gadgets in their hands.
A report from the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center concluded that effective Internet safety programs focus on skills, not frightening info, accepting that social media is a reality in children's lives and that they can best equip themselves to navigate it. And the best "solutions" often have little to do with the Internet itself.
It's part of a teenagers "job to become an adult and start pushing away, to find their place in the world," says Ms. Collier, of Net Family News. "That’s just what children do," she says. But well-meaning parents who want to strictly monitor kids' media usage in hopes of avoiding some of the bullying and mistakes, or worse, may be sending the wrong message.
A focus on monitoring and blocking sites or apps "teaches children that that’s what keeps them safe, rather than resilience, and helping one another out, empathy: the internal safeguards," Collier says. "And those are developed normally as children grow, if parents don’t constantly take all the protective work into their own hands, and treat their children as potential victims all the time."
With a few safeguards, the mini-dramas of most children's online lives become opportunities to learn about respect, self-care, and sticking up for others: taking the responsibility to report troubling behavior online, for example.
It's a difficult balance that relies on communication between not just parent and child, but on- and offline worlds, which teens (and their parents) increasingly experience as one and the same. A single Instagram post or Tweet usually doesn't tell the whole story, and keeping low-pressure communication open about what's going on at school and on the bus, as well as Facebook, can help parents make decisions about when behavior merits a serious conversation or intervention.
Collier also recommends relaxed chats and family habits about media usage, such as sitting down side by side and occasionally catching up with the latest on Instagram. And kids may be more open to that than parents think, she says, especially since so much online activity is searching for one-on-one connections: "We all need to be paying more attention to each other."