News this week has centered on the murder of a 13-year-old girl. As the puzzle pieces come together we have learned about the use of social media habits of Nicole Lovell that connected her with an 18-year-old VT student who has been charged with her murder. Nicole traversed Facebook and Kik looking for positive affirmation. Tormented by bullies at school, Nicole met a boy who undoubtedly made her feel loved and accepted. The relationship spiraled out of control leaving Nicole’s family is left anguishing over her senseless death. After a horrific incident like this, parents, law enforcement agencies, schools and the community at large try to figure out how to what happened and more importantly how to prevent similar tragedies from happening again. Nicole’s parents had no idea of the people she was socializing with through Kik or Facebook. As much as law enforcement will try to scrutinize Kik, Snapchat or Ask.FM, by the time that parents and police are placed into the equation there is already another crop of anonymous social media platforms ready to take the place of the compromised one. Go to the app store and browse new free social media platforms and you will get a glimpse of which app is coming around the bend. What parents, law enforcement agencies, schools and communities don’t understand is that even if they try to run Kik out of town or force Ask.FM to change its image (now a friendly owl) the problem remains unchanged. It is like a game of whack a mole; new social media platforms will keep popping up.
So, what are concerned parents and communities supposed to do? The solution lies within social media education for parents, educating students about how to use social media platforms and start talking to kids about their digital footprint. Open dialogue between parents and their children about how to use these platforms wisely is vital and educating parents about what exactly it is that their children are spending hours a day communicating on cannot be overlooked. When a child gets a device (no matter if it is an iPod, iPad, phone or laptop) they can communicate with anyone in the world, literally. They can watch pornography, lie about their age, buy and sell drugs, bully, see gruesome images of violence, death and despair and yet there is no education that accompanies this open door of endless possibilities. Parents are lulled into the assumption that because kids are in their bedrooms, living rooms and basements things cannot get that out of control, right? No, ask Nicole Lovell’s parents. What might have started as harmless flirting became a relationship, a late night tryst and then murder. While the situations that kids find themselves in online seem virtual to many parents, they are not, there is a human typing messages, exchanging photographs and arranging meetings.
In the late 1800’s the US instituted sex education for school aged students realizing that some families did not know how, when, or why to have “the talk”. As the years progressed, sex education took into account threats to those same school aged children, STD prevention, AIDS information and most recently sex trafficking have been intermingled into this nationwide standard. And yet we have no formal education about the medium at which some estimate as consuming up to 9 hours of a teens day. We need to educate teens about the social media platforms that will in no small part define their future. Their prospective college will look; landlords, future spouses, employers, scholarship committees, co-workers, and friends will all look. You know who else is looking? Drug dealers, pedophiles, rapists and murderers. We need to teach parents what to look out for and what dangers to educate children about. Just as we send them off to college at 18 having discussed drinking, drugs, sex, safety and every other potential danger that we anticipate they may encounter we MUST do the same for social media education. Education starts with parents and schools. Social media is here to stay and remaining blissfully ignorant will not work.
Read more: Making the Case for Social Media Education