On January 27, seventh-grader Nicole Lovell barricaded the door to her bedroom and then snuck out the window, taking her Minions blanket and a water bottle. Her body was found three days later, just over the North Carolina border. The 13-year-old had been murdered. Two Virginia Tech students, David Eisenhauer, 18, and Natalie Keepers, 19, are at the center of the murder investigation. So is the social media app Kik.
By some accounts, Lovell led a very active online life. She met and interacted with a number of people online. “She asked them if she was cute. She flirted with them. She showed them coquettish pictures of herself. She was a social-media-savvy tween when she told them all about her first kiss. Her imaginary cloud world wasn’t private,” writes Petula Dvorak, columnist at The Washington Post. “On Facebook, Instagram, Kik, in chats and groups, she wasn’t the kid with the liver-transplant scars, or the baby-fat girl bullied in her seventh-grade classes. She was a flirting, dating teen with lip gloss and great lines.”
Regrettably, this is a story I hear too often. Young boys and girls, looking for connection, looking for companionship, turn to social media. In many ways, the online world gives them an escape from the offline one. They can be who they want, act how they want. And many times meet and interact with whomever they want, unbeknownst to their parents. It's been reported that 40 percent of Kik’s 240 million users are teens.
“Unfortunately, we see it every day,” said Lt. James Bacon, head of the Fairfax County Police Department’s child exploitation unit. “Kik became the latest thing,” Bacon said. “It’s attractive to predators because of its anonymity. You can make a Kik account and you can make yourself out to be anyone you want to be.”
For a number of reasons, Kik is popular among teens. The app offers almost no effective parental-monitoring capabilities and while the app is supposedly limited to those 13 and older, there is no age-verification process. "It is not plausible to have perfect age verification for users," the company said in a statement. "However, Kik believes that its registration process played no role in the unfortunate death of this child." The app also lets users search by age and allows them the ability to send photos that aren’t stored on the phone. Added up, this makes it popular with teens. It also makes the app popular for predators.
Complicating matters is the fact that Kik is headquartered in Ontario, Canada. Some U.S. law enforcement authorities claim that makes it more difficult to get cooperation from Kik, an assertion the company denies. “Kik cooperates with law enforcement to combat child predators anywhere in the world, either upon provision of a court order, or in emergency situations when there is an urgent threat to life or physical safety,” a spokesman said in a statement. “In this particular case, we were active in helping the FBI carry out their investigation.”
So this leaves us with the tragic death of a young girl, a murder seemingly facilitated through social media. For many, this heartbreaking event is a clarion call for parents. Many are now wondering what else they can do to safeguard their children. On Thursday, Kik released an updated Guide for Parents on its site.
But there’s a lot more to do. Below are some other tips to keep your child safe online:
- Know what apps are on your child’s phone. If your kid is on Facebook, you should be on Facebook. If they’re on Instagram, you should be on Instagram. Do this for all social media apps on your child’s phone. I don’t care if you don’t want a Facebook account or an Instagram account. If they’re on it, you should be too.
- Randomly check their phone for newly installed apps. Also check the apps themselves. Load up Facebook, Snapchat, Kik, etc. from their phone. Sometimes children will create multiple accounts in an effort to hide their activity.
- Monitor who they friend and periodically spot check their online communications.
- Everything in moderation. Some parents take the phone away when its bedtime. Others set a time limit on how much their children can use the phone throughout the day. Whatever you choose, stick to it. Consistency is key.
- In the event you suspect your child is being targeted by an online predator, report it. Don’t wait. Report it to your local law enforcement agency immediately.