Keeping Our Digital Children Safe

By Tracey Dowdy

The recent death of 13 year-old Nicole Madison Lovell was a terrible tragedy. A cancer and liver transplant survivor, Nicole lost her life after chatting with strangers on social media and then apparently arranging to meet an 18 year old man through the messaging app Kik. Two Virginia Tech students have been charged in connection with Nicole’s death.

Unfortunately, Nicole’s story is not unique. From the time our children are small we warn them of “stranger danger.” As they get older and become active online, we caution them about the risks of talking to strangers via social media. But according to Pew Research, six out of ten teens say they have at least one friend that they’ve met online and one-third say they’ve gone on to meet that friend in person. Those are sobering statistics.

That teens engage in risky behavior should not be a surprise to anyone. Temple University psychology professor Laurence Steinberg says, “The teenage brain is like a car with a good accelerator but a weak brake. With powerful impulses under poor control, the likely result is a crash.”

Impulse control stems from the frontal lobe of our brain which isn’t fully developed until around age 25, so when teens experience peer pressure or extreme emotions they’re less likely to consider the long-term consequences of their actions.

Pair that lack of judgment with online predators and we have the tragic story of a child like Nicole. She had allegedly been the victim of bullying at school; a situation many experts say can make a teen even more vulnerable to online predators.

Commander of the Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force David Frattare says, “Kik is the problem app of the moment,” primarily because the user’s identity is protected. Although the app asks for the user’s real name and email address, Kik works even if they’re fictitious and the app doesn’t require a phone number.

Kik is similar to text messaging but more private. It’s free, allows unlimited messaging, gives users the ability to insert gifs and a variety of emoji’s, and, best of all to many teens, most parents have no idea it exists. However your kids know about it: according to Kik’s website, the app is used by 40 percent of American teens.

Unlike some other messaging apps, written messages on Kik can’t be viewed by outsiders or shown to the police and images or videos are only retained until they’re opened on the recipient’s device. In a case like Nicole’s where there is a court order, Kik can provide law enforcement with a log of a user’s activity and in some cases an IP address, though with 275 million registered users worldwide it’s no small task to sift through the information.

Where does this leave parents? First of all, don’t panic. Although Kik is one of many social media platforms that are being exploited by predators, it’s important not to overreact and take away all your child’s devices. Professor David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, warns us not to become “technophobic.” Remember it’s character, not technology, that makes children and teens vulnerable. Kids who are socially isolated, bullied, struggle with depression, or don’t get along with parents and caregivers are those most at risk.

But how do we protect our children against online predators? Well, there are some excellent mobile phone monitoring apps that can help you control how your child’s phone is used. But remember, no app or parental control can substitute for an open and honest conversation with your kids. Educate them about the risks and long term consequences of interacting with strangers online. Remind them that someone presenting themselves as a peer could easily be a predator and that spur of the moment decisions can sometimes lead to tragic long-term consequences.

Author’s Note: Kik is cooperating fully with law enforcement in the Lovell case. They sponsor an annual conference on crimes against children, as well as providing a law enforcement guide on their website to assist in the prevention of child exploitation.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

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