Details are still unknown about the heartbreaking death of Nicole Lovell, the 13-year-old Virginia girl who disappeared from her home on Jan. 27 and was later found dead, allegedly killed by an 18-year-old college student she met online. But reports have already settled on a familiar narrative: that popular online platforms like Kik and Facebook are to blame.
One New York Times article — headlined, “How some mobile apps have led to sex crimes and scandals” — explained that “law enforcement officials warn that a new class of smartphone apps, particularly those that offer users a new degree of anonymity, pose significant risks for teenagers.” Teen Vogue warned that “cyber-bullies and sexual predators can use [Kik] to communicate and commit crimes in an environment where it’s hard for law enforcement to retrieve the messages.” The takeaway? We’re not worrying enough about children’s safety on social media.
But before rushing to entertain solutions like online age restrictions, keeping kids offline or shutting down certain websites, let’s remember that our desire to address these tragedies can prompt ineffective policy responses.
Yes, predators approach children online. But kids are just as likely to be in danger offline.
Lovell’s horrific case stokes our fear of a misleading archetype: the stranger abductor/molester/killer. After waning over time, this fear has grown, thanks to the notion that the Internet gives strangers access to our children on an order previously unseen. But this particular anxiety actually threatens to divert us from important strides we’ve made over the last generation in understanding how to bolster children’s safety. We need to keep in mind the atypical features of this type of crime.
Youth homicides and abductions committed by a stranger met online are rare. The FBI does not specifically track Internet-related crime, but in several recent studies we conducted at the Crimes Against Children Research Center, we found that the number of such cases in the course of one year can be counted on one hand. They normally represent a small fraction of the roughly 1,600 homicides of children each year, the vast majority of which occur at the hands of family members, neighbors, dating partners and gang rivals, all known from their face-to-face world. In 2009, we identified no homicides and only one abduction in a representative sample of arrests for Internet-related sex crimes against children.
There are, clearly, far too many of these Internet-mediated sex crimes. But their significance and dynamics should not be misrepresented. Online-mediated sex crimes against children represented about 3 percent of the nearly 50,000 total arrests for sex crimes against children. Even among Internet offenders, acquaintances from face-to-face environments — from school, from church or from the neighborhood — outnumbered stranger perpetrators.
Research also shows that it is not online anonymity and deception, or the secrecy of electronic communication, that makes these crimes possible. It is the brazenness of adults who take advantage, online and off, of their authority, resources and the vulnerability of marginalized youth who are led to believe that becoming romantically or sexually involved with an adult would be an appealing option. These are the crucial dynamics that need to be addressed more urgently than whether or not the illicit interaction was initiated online.
In spite of our collective intuition, it’s not clear that the Internet has increased the number of such crimes. In the years since everyone, young and old, has flocked to the Internet, sex crimes against youth by adults have decreased significantly, as shown by police reports, child protection investigations and population surveys.
The Internet may even be part of the reason for the decline. Before the prevalence of messaging apps, but well into the Internet era, unwanted sexual solicitations online decreased from 19 percent in 2000 to 9 percent in 2010. The Internet has allowed law enforcement to conduct stings and catch offenders before they can physically reach kids. It may keep kids closer to home than they would have been in an era when their search for diversion meant being out in the world. The tracks criminals leave online can also be used as evidence for later prosecution.
We shouldn’t assume the online environment presents greater risks than other spheres our young people inhabit.
The usual alarms — Regulate those apps! Monitor your kids! Don’t talk to strangers online! — fail to incorporate what we’ve learned works best to protect children: teaching them early on about healthy, age-appropriate relationships; helping them practice refusal skills; impulse management and emotion control; and bystander mobilization, making sure their friends help put the brakes on potentially dangerous choices. These skills will ideally come from parents, but schools and other youth-serving organizations should get into the act, because too many vulnerable youths are alienated from the family members who would otherwise help impart these lessons.
“Only use Kik to message people you know personally,” writes Teen Vogue’s Linley Sanders. But that can give children a false sense that, automatically, the people they know are safe and the people they don’t, aren’t. That one app is safer than another or that online is riskier than offline. A better approach is helping young people develop strategies to protect themselves, and to get help if and when they need it.
We should commit to preventing tragedies like Lovell’s. We owe it to her memory to do what really works, both on and offline.