There's a video going round at the moment which shows how easy it is for a predator to lure young girls using social media. The video, created by YouTube star Coby Persin, has been highlighted by various media outlets, including People Magazine, and has been viewed almost 34 million times in one week.
It's a frightening experiment, a chilling video to say the least. The girls, one of whom is only 12 years old, willingly walk into the trap with seemingly no hesitation or consideration, even when they can see the person they're meeting is not the person they thought they were speaking to online. The last sequence, in particular, is concerning, as a young girl willingly gets into a van with a guy she's never met (the thought that a fifteen year-old is driving a car doesn't trigger any alarm bells) and is then grabbed and, theoretically, could have been taken, there and then. The video closes with the sobering message:
"There are 750,000 registered child predators in the United States - keep your kids safe"
As a father, this is the sort of thing that keeps me up at night, and you can see from the reactions of the parents in the video that they're horrified at how easily they could lose their child. While I did feel for the young girls and the humiliation they must have felt at being subject to such a cruel experiment, the core message cannot be understated - online predators are a major concern, and, as demonstrated, they can so easily infiltrate kids' lives via the most basic social media deception. So what do we do?
Teaching students about the pros and cons of social media is already relatively commonplace in many school curriculums. But, of course, educating, in this sense, can only go so far, and a young girl or boy desperate for attention, and able to get it online, will always be somewhat vulnerable to the charms of a savvy predator who knows which buttons to push. Do we then ban social media for younger users? Most platforms already have minimum age requirements, with 13 being the bottom-age for Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. But then, there's no definitive way to enforce that. As shown in the video, a 12 year-old girl was active on Facebook.
Given the proliferation of social media, basic age gates are likely not going to be enough to keep young people off the networks. And parents can't be expected to monitor their child's every activity online - kids need a level of trust and privacy, which is considered to be a large contributing factor to the popularity of messaging apps like Facebook Messenger and Snapchat, they can use these platforms to communicate away from the prying eyes of, well, everyone.
The only true answer seems is in education, and in ensuring all the various risks and concerns are highlighted, in no uncertain terms, to try and ensure that message gets through. It's not fool-proof, it's not a definitive, 100% guarantee that kids will listen and understand the risks. But it's the best we have. In this sense, it's important that educators familiarize themselves with social media and social media trends to ensure they're aware of all the potential risks and are able to highlight these to students. In this, sense there should also be some onus on parents to learn the dangers and understand what can be done to better communicate and inform their kids of what they should look out for and what they should avoid in social media circles. Social media may not be something you're interested in, but it will play a big part in your kids' interactive lives - learning the details could be of significant benefit. If this video doesn't highlight that, I don't know what will.
The truth is that social media is becoming an increasingly critical part of how we connect and communicate with the wider world. We can't deny this is happening, we can't ignore it and pretend it's a fad that'll fade out in due course.
In this sense, we also need to acknowledge that our kids are going to be active on social media, and thus, they're going to be in situations where they may be vulnerable to manipulation from those with ill-intentions. For this reason, we need to ensure that we're acknowledging and seeking to understand the new world of social connectivity in order to better inform and better protect our kids and keep them safe amidst the rising amount of propositions and requests being sent their way. Over the years, we've learned to filter out spam and scam messages that seek to infect our PCs and steal our information - we need to ensure that same instinct for detection is built into how young people approach online activity, and especially social media requests.
The value of social media is in connection, in the ability to connect with a wider range of people and build increased understanding and a more informed society through the capacity to see the world through more perspectives than our own and those we've traditionally had access to, geographically. But along with that comes the fact that we are also more open to the world, and the negative elements that exist within it. We can't rely on social networks to safeguard our kids from this, it's impossible for them to cover all bases. We can't hope that they'll work it out for themselves. We need resources like Cody Persin's project to highlight the innate dangers and underline why young people need to question everything and consider the possible outcomes before taking that next step.
The onus of education is on all of us - we should take note and seek to improve understanding, both ours and for others, where we can.