| Special for USA TODAY
Smartphone app popular among younger teens, Kik Messenger is on the defensive following the stabbing death of a 13-year-old girl in Virginia who told friends she was using Kik to connect with an 18-year-old man.
USA TODAY columnist Steven Petrow offers advice about living in the Digital Age.
It’s been hard to miss the horrific headlines about 13-year-old Nicole Madison Lovell, who was allegedly kidnapped and killed by two Virginia Tech students she met through the wildly popular instant-messaging app Kik. It’s also clear where some fingers are pointing: “Can Social Media Be Blamed for the Murder of a 13-Year-Old Girl?” asked one headline. “Wildly Popular App Kik Offers Teenagers, and Predators, Anonymity,” read another.
Apparently the Virginia teen — who had survived both a liver transplant and lymphoma — had been teased in real life because of her “baby fat,” red hair, and freckles. Like many other lonely and insecure teens, she sought acceptance online. Unfortunately (but also like many other young teens) she lacked the maturity and judgment to see the dangers in her online behavior.
The news was one horror after another: First Lovell went missing, then within days her body was discovered in a shallow grave just over the North Carolina border. Law enforcement then arrested the two college students, David Eisenhauer, 19, a star athlete, and Natalie Keepers, 18, and charged them with luring Lovell out that night and slashing her throat.
But to me — and many others — the ultimate horror is that Lovell’s mom told the Washington Post that she’d never heard about the app named Kik. Not only have I written about the dangers of Kik and others like it — Yik Yak, Whisper, Secret — but law enforcement officials have repeatedly spoken out vociferously about the dangers of these anonymous apps. In recent days, the head of the Fairfax (Va.) Police Department’s child exploitation unit told the Post that Kik is “attractive to predators because of its anonymity. You can make a Kik account and you can make yourself out to be anyone you want to be.”
As concerned as they may be, the police can only do so much. Let’s face it: Kids don’t always make great decisions, especially when it comes to their personal safety. Lovell thought she had a boyfriend in Eisenhauer. He had only a victim. Kik creates a virtual world in which a vulnerable teen and a predator can form the illusion of a relationship without knowing a thing about each other. That takes us to the role of parents everywhere.
Jenny Rapson, a mother of three and the editor of ForEveryMom, addressed all moms and dads in a recent blog: “[D] o not be deceived: there is NOTHING stopping you or me from becoming just like [Nicole’s mother]. From becoming the parent of a murdered child. Nothing except our OWN vigilance.”
“So I am begging you,” Rapson continued. “Be the parent that doesn’t let their kid have a smartphone. Or be the parent that goes through that phone, and your child’s browser history, EVERY night. Be the parent that puts filters on your internet, or a program that sends you an email detailing every site and app your kid looks at. Be THAT parent, and you will be the parent of a child who is NOT the victim of an online predator.”
I won’t join those who would pile on social media and blame it for this death. After all, Nicole was probably just as vulnerable to a predator next door as she was to the one online. The tragedy is that we now have tools to widen almost infinitely the pool where these predators may be lurking and how they may find us.
— For any adult with responsibility for a teen or pre-teen, make sure you know about these extremely popular apps: Snapchat, Instagram, Kik, Yik Yak, and Whisper, among others.
— Remember that you need to stay on top of new apps and how to recognize the telltale signs of “ghost” apps (hidden from view) on a phone.
— Learn the secret language of kids:
PAW or PRW: Parents are watching
PIR: Parents in room
POS: Parent over shoulder
P911: Parent emergency
(L) MIRL: (Let’s) meet in real life
— Finally — and most importantly — talk with your kids about protecting themselves both online and in real life. As toddlers they no doubt heard from you about “stranger danger,” but they need a refresher course now. Any adult who shows too much interest in a youngster should raise a red flag in their minds; kids and teens need to understand that online, they don’t even know who’s an adult, let alone a predator.
(Here’s a great resource: Parent’s Guide to Internet Safety.)
Agree or disagree with my advice? Let me know in the comments section.
Submit your question to Steven at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can also follow Steven on Twitter: @StevenPetrow . Or like him on Facebook at facebook.com/stevenpetrow .