Thanks, mom and dad.
Thanks, mom and dad.

Late one night, a van pulls up to a small house in a sleepy suburban neighborhood. The home’s door opens and a 12-year-old girl comes outside. She’d met a boy on Facebook just a few days before and they’d chatted. His brother could drive, he’d told her. He could come meet her if she wanted.

Thinking her own parents were out on a date night, the girl agreed. When she opened the van’s door, a man told her he was her friend’s brother and her friend was in the back seat. “Get in,” he said.

She obliged.

Suddenly two strangers in skeleton masks grabbed her from behind, pinning her to the seat. The man at the wheel pulled on her arm and pawed at her hair. She is screaming at the top of her lungs and struggling with all her might.

What she doesn’t know is that her own parents are behind the horrendous kidnapping, pawing and pinning, in an attempt to teach her a lesson.

For parents, there is nothing scarier than this. And as adults, we all know how easily it can start on social media. With new platforms popping up daily, the wealth of personal information online and the easygoing, carefree way you can talk to friends, family and strangers at any time of day or night, it’s a perfect fit for those kids old enough to crave a social outlet. And given you can find anyone willing to talk about any topic, it makes even the dreariest teenage days pass by painlessly.

The dangers of this virtual world are stark, particularly when they cross over into real life, and most teenagers simply can’t grasp how easily they can be manipulated or fooled into believing the person on the other end of the screen is a friend, when really he or she is a predator. Parents may feel like they can talk about it until they are blue in the face, but guidance can only go so far, and most kids believe intrinsically that it will never happen to them. They are invincible.

Until they are in a van, getting groped and threatened by strangers.

And what can we do to stop this, to help our kids make good choices? I’ll tell you what we shouldn’t do, at least. We shouldn’t be the “strangers” in that van, like the parents of the young girl at the start of this piece.

In a video-taped social experiment, Coby Persin contacted three sets of parents about letting him friend their daughters on Facebook, pretending to be someone he wasn’t. He was to talk to the girls for a few days, then get them to agree to meet him. When they did, their parents jumped out and scolded them.

The video is being heralded as a mark of good parenting, a solid tactic for teaching young teens a lesson about stranger-danger. But the only lesson here that I can see those girls learning is that they can never trust their parents again. That those who are closest to them have the most power to victimize them (which, if you look at child predation data, is sadly true). And that while they aren’t allowed to talk to strange boys on the internet, it is perfectly okay for their parents to share their anguish, tears, sorrow, humiliation and stupidity online for millions of strangers to view at any time.

The parents in the video all said at some point, “What if something happened to you?”

Something did happen to them, particularly the last girl which is where this video really goes off the rails. She was assaulted. She went through the same emotion, same fear and same shutdown as if she’d actually been kidnapped. That can be traumatizing to anyone, let alone a child. She thought it was real. Her own parents allowed her to scream and writhe and fight for her life to teach her a lesson. Sounds like a great way to give a child post-traumatic stress disorder, to me. Shock tactics are bad parenting, an admission of weak communication with your children and an already wavering trust that will be irreparably damaged with a stunt like this.

It is a parent’s job to be trusted, implicitly and without question, by their kids. As parents, we would like to trust our kids, but it is not their job to be trustworthy. It is their job to learn how to be trustworthy. (And don’t forget their brains aren’t fully developed in terms of decision making.) Adults should already be there. Taking away that bridge does nothing but harm the child and harm the relationship you’ve spent so long trying to build. All while being complicit in unnecessary trauma.

Instead of scaring your kids straight about social media with the aid of some guy trying to go viral, why not have the tough conversations about social media and strangers that you need to have. Not lectures and this-could-happen-to-you type stuff, but real-world stuff. Take them on a tour of your own Facebook. If you’ve been threatened, tell them about it, and tell them about what you did about it. If you’ve been hurt by an online relationship, tell them about that, too. It’s about building real trust with the real people your children are becoming, not shouting hollow platitudes at them and snatching their phones away in the back of some dude’s van while he films it.

The experiment here simply goes too far. The point would still get across if you simply “found” the messages and dictated punishment accordingly. And given how important social media monitoring was to these parents, it wouldn’t be out of bounds for them to do random checks on device usage, right?

What is out of bounds? Assaulting or traumatizing your own kid. Then sharing it with millions of strangers to teach her not to talk to strangers.

Darlena Cunha is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to On Parenting. She blogs at Parentwin and can be reached on Twitter @parentwin.

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