Ashleigh Hall, 17, was raped and murdered by a 33-year-old man she met on Facebook who was posing as a teenager. How does this happen?
Lori Getz: Who is Peter Cartwright? Is he a 19-year-old Facebook hottie, or a 33-year-old registered sex offender? The answer became clear after the man behind the pseudo-identity, Peter Chapman, raped and murdered 17-year-old Ashleigh Hall in the fall of last year. He was found guilty on Monday and sentenced to 35 years in prison.
Ashleigh and Peter met on Facebook and quickly became friendly, exchanging notes on their walls. They even sent text messages to each other. Peter was posing as an attractive 19-year-old, using a photo of a bare-chested young man as his profile picture.
Within a month, Peter had convinced Ashleigh to agree to a face-to-face meeting, telling her his father would be picking her up for the weekend rendezvous. Ashleigh's body was found the following Monday.
How does this happen? How do good kids fall prey to such horror? What is Facebook's responsibility? What is our responsibility as parents?
First, it happens more often than we want to think. It doesn't always end as tragically, but our kids are enamored with being "famo," or Internet-famous. The more friends they have online, the more popular they seem to think they are. But this just isn't so. The truth is, the more online friends they have, the bigger the target on their back.
Good kids fall prey to predators for a couple of reasons:
1) They are trusting! They have a hard time believing anyone would want to do them harm.
2) Predators are smart and patient! They find "good victims" and wait patiently to cultivate a relationship that is built on a false sense of trust and loyalty. A predator will become your child's best friend, significant other, parent or mentor. They will be whatever the victim needs them to be in order to gain their trust.
What makes a "good victim?"
A "good victim," in the eyes of a predator, is someone who is seeking attention. When predators see sexy or provocative profile pictures on Facebook, they are drawn to the users because they see them as attention seekers. And remember, predators are very good at giving victims all the attention in the world. Also, kids who are willing to friend just about anyone online are also seen as "good victims," because, again, they display attention-seeking behavior. Finally, when a user posts status updates about hating his/her parents or school, this gives the predator an opening to connect with the victim.
Is Facebook responsible?
Yes and no. Facebook, in my opinion, has a responsibility to act when lascivious or questionable behavior is brought to their attention. In the past, Facebook has removed known registered sex offenders from the site. The company encourages users to report any type of abuse that occurs within their site. Users can report everything from cyberbullying to potential predators. But the USERS need to know to do this.
Facebook's warning about dangerous predators is buried deep within the help menu under "Safety." But it is there. The warning talks about how people can pretend to be anyone they want, and therefore it is in the users' best interest to proceed with caution when friending strangers.
Increasing age requirements or attempting to block older and younger users is NOT going to solve these types of problems. As of now, Facebook requires that a user be 13 -- but I know plenty of 10-year-olds who have accounts (and their parents know about it). The kids just lie, and Facebook has no way of verifying such information (especially if the parents are in on the deception).
That's where we come in as parents. What is our responsibility?
To be active and involved parents in our children's online world -- the SAME way we are active and involved parents in their physical world. Education is the ONLY option here. Social networking has its pitfalls, but it also has incredible value when used appropriately. Staying connected with friends, marketing a new business, exchanging photos with family members across the world -- these are all positive things.
But we need to start talking to our kids about the fact that these communities have the same rules that our personal communities have. Keep personal information private, respect one another and do not involve ourselves with total strangers or invite them into our lives.
Lori Getz is the founder of Cyber Education Consultants and speaks to students, parents and educators about Internet safety, security and ethics. She has a Master of Arts in Educational Technology from San Diego State University and is certified by isafe.org as an Internet Safety Specialist. Her mission is to help bridge the gap between a young generation of digital natives and their parents and teachers. She is the mother of one and lives in Los Angeles with her husband.