This week I spent an awful lot of time talking about the tragic murder of Nicole Lovell. She is the 13-year-old central Virginia girl whose body was found on the side of the road last Saturday. Two Virginia Tech students have been arrested in connection with her death, and it appears that social media played a part in this sad story. Evidence suggests she may have met her suspected killer through a social networking app called Kik.
At the end of every conversation about this story--with friends, colleagues, and press--I find myself asking the same question: What if?
What if... parents talked to their kids about their online lives?
This is harder than in sounds. First off, kids have to be willing to talk, right? So a good time to initiate these conversations is with the gift of a first phone or computer. Ask them what they're doing online, or how to use an app, or even ask for their help with your own phone or computer. This is how you build a bridge to a place called "mutual trust." It's harder to build this bridge if you wait until they already have an online life that doesn't include you.
What if...every child received Digital Citizenship lessons in school?
This way they'd be constantly talking, thinking, and learning about both the perils and possibilities afforded by online interactions. It's being reported that Lovell told friends about her online relationship with the young man who has been charged with her murder, and even shared pictures and texts with friends. What if these friends had learned, in school, what to do in such a situation ("tell a trusted adult")? When I teach Cyber Civics classes we talk about all this and more. Kids love talking about their online lives (current and future) and even end up watching out for each other in these new places, employing strategies they learn in school. It's surprising how a little education can result in a whole lot of online protection and savvy.
What if...social media sites took age restrictions seriously?
Associated Press reports that Lovell told friends that she met "David" on the Kik Messenger app. The minimum age of use for this app is 13, and Kik also requires that children between 13 and 18 years of age get parental permission before using the service.
In a CBS News story Kik Interactive spokesman Rod McLeod acknowledged that "there's no technical way to enforce that or to prevent a child from entering a false birthdate." Maybe this is my technical naïveté speaking, but it's hard to believe that my iPhone knows who I am with the touch of my thumb, yet no one can figure out how to keep underage kids off apps like Kik. Really?
What if...we made these first three "what if's" a top priority?
I really hope that this terrible tragedy becomes the wake-up call we all need--parents, teachers, and industry--to support and educate our online kids. While many are quick to blame the app or the parents in situations like this one, the truth is, we are all to blame. We need to do better.