Two events occurred last week in my area that are sure to terrify parents everywhere.
First, two Virginia Tech students were charged with kidnapping and killing 13-year-old Nicole Lovell, a Virginia seventh grader who used social media to escape bullying after surviving a liver transplant earlier in her life.
Second, also in Maryland, a 22-year-old church and school volunteer was charged with making and sharing pornographic videos of children ages 9-13.
Both of these horrific cases involve the same technology — the anonymous phone chat program Kik, which has 240 million users worldwide – used as a tool to target, attract, and victimize vulnerable children. The Kik app was used by the two Virginia Tech students to target and win over Nicole Lovell. In the sexual abuse case, the same app was used by the adult to share the sexually explicit videos with his young victims.
These abuses are terrifying to most parents for two good reasons: they trigger our fear of not being able to keep our children safe, and they exploit our fear that we don’t understand, and can’t stay ahead of, technological advances our kids understand better and can access more adroitly than we do.
But these tragic cases also make clear that there are, in fact, many things we can do to prevent technology from being used to harm our kids, and that doing so is part of modern parenting.
The heart of the problem lies not in the apps and technology available today, but in the fact that devices have become smaller and more mobile. When most children and teenagers used a computer to access the Internet, monitoring their usage was fairly easy. Parents could station the computer in the kitchen or a well-traveled family room, and check what kids were doing on a regular basis. But many kids now have cell phones with Internet connectivity and lock protection, so the dangers have gone under their pillows and in their pockets – places that are far harder to supervise and control.
So first, it’s important to know that parents have technology on our side. As a result, control of kids phones, especially kids younger than 13, is fairly easy and not expensive. Option one is to not get your child a phone until you trust their judgment and awareness of dangerous technological situations. Option two – get a restricted phone with preprogrammed numbers, such as Firefly or Kajeet. Then you have a chance to teach your child how to use the phone to contact you and other people you approve, and gradually learn how to handle a cell phone responsibility, without opening up the Internet and chat floodgates. There are also many apps, provided by Verizon, AT&T and others, that allow parents to control and track kids’ texts and calls.
The trickier challenge comes with older kids, the ones who say a Firefly is a “baby phone” and beg for more sophisticated smart phones and other electronics. Giving young teenagers a powerful device like an iPhone, Android, iPad or computer with Internet access becomes a tricky balancing act. You, as the responsible adult, need to set guidelines that tie together the trust many of us want to show our children, with the recognition that teenagers’ frontal lobes are not yet fully developed and most will, invariably, make a few foolish decisions.
Each child and situation is unique. The frustrating part of parenting and technology is that there are no hard and fast rules to keep all kids safe no matter what. Too much restriction can trigger rebellion and mistrust of authority figures — or the takeaway that the world is too dangerous for your children. Laxity can send the signals that you don’t care about their safety, or that the dangers of Internet abuse aren’t real. So think long and hard about your kid, what technology makes sense for your family, and talk openly with your children about the risks and privileges inherent to our current tech profusion.
The good news here: the same technology that was used to target these young victims was also instrumental in catching the offenders, and will also probably help punish them and stop them from hurting more children. And these cautionary tales give all of us parents a reason to re-evaluate our own policies when it comes to monitoring our children’s social media and phone usage. The next step: let’s urge high tech companies to find ways that apps and devices can be used to prevent abuse of children — before it occurs.