The real parenting lessons of the 'Child Predator Social Experiment'

Story highlights

  • Video showing how easily teens meet up with strangers online has more than 33 million views
  • "Generational shift" in attitudes about meeting strangers online, says a tech expert
  • 20% of teens who met someone online will meet them in person, according to Pew Research survey

Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns, and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

(CNN)There is probably nothing that freaks out a parent more than the fear of their child being lured away by a stranger, which is why we, as parents, constantly talk about stranger-danger with our little ones.

But are we keeping the conversation going with our tweens and teens when the virtual world replaces the playground for social contact?
Not enough, according to a new and controversial video that has gone viral, with more than 33 million views on YouTube.
    In the video, YouTube star Coby Persin sets out to show how easy it is to pick up an underage girl using social media. He makes a fake profile on Facebook, pretending to be a 15-year-old boy. And then with the permission of parents, he friend requests three girls, ages 12, 13 and 14.
    Over the next few days, he talks to the girls on social media and then makes plans to meet them in person.
    Thirteen-year-old Mikayla agrees to get together at a park near her house when her parents leave.
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    When she arrives, she doesn't find the 15-year-old she was chatting with on Facebook, but Persin along with her irate father, who screams, "Are you out of your mind? He could have raped you."
    In the final and most shocking scenario, 14-year-old Jenna agrees to meet with Persin after her parents go out on a date. She thinks Persin's brother will be coming to pick her up, and when she gets inside the van, two people wearing ski masks grab her arms.
    She screams, clearly thinking she's about to be attacked. Then, her mother and father pull off their masks and reveal their identities.
    "How could you dare go into a stranger's car?" screams her father, demanding that his daughter turn over her phone. "We looked at newspaper articles ... about all these things that are real-life situations that had happened and we discussed them," yells her mother, who grabs the phone when her daughter doesn't give it to her parents.
    Persin tells Jenna she obviously thought she was talking to a 15-year-old but it was really him. "You understand now, you should never ever do that again," he says. "Teach you a lesson for your whole life."

    Lessons for parents?

    But what exactly are the parenting lessons from this so-called "Child Predator Social Experiment" modeled after the "To Catch a Predator" television series, which caught everyday Americans from all walks of life in the act as they planned to meet underage children they met online?
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    In conversations with parents and digital safety experts around the country, I found mixed opinions.
    "I guess that if baiting young girls and sharing their embarrassment via a frightening YouTube video is the best we can do when it comes to 'educating' our kids, it's better than nothing," said Diana Graber, co-founder of CyberWise.org, a digital literacy site for parents, tweens and teens, and educators. "But frankly, this is a complex topic that deserves to be addressed more thoroughly."
    Graber, who teaches "cyber civics" to middle schoolers, said the video points to the need for more teaching of digital literacy and citizenship in schools, which would mean more ongoing conversations not just about predators, but about topics such as online privacy, reputation management, sexting, cyberbullying and more.
    "When we make time for this, then students learn to have each other's backs, develop and follow their own social norms and we see all kinds of problems, like these, disappear," said Graber.
    David Ryan Polgar, a digital lifestyle expert, said on the one hand, the video may get people talking about online safety, which is a positive, but on the other hand, the only solution offered in the video, he said, was turning over the girl's cellphone.
    "The solution is not going to be to ... cower in fear and just kind of unplug yourself from life," said Polgar, who is a frequent tech commentator and speaker. "It's going to be more about saying, 'OK, this is an opportunity where I should be educated in how to use the technology.' Technology is not the problem. The problem is our misuse or lack of education behind it."

    'Generational shift' about meeting strangers online

    Polgar said parents need to understand there has been a major "generational shift" with digital natives and millennials who are more trustworthy of meeting people online than other age groups.
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    According to a recent Pew Research Center national survey, nearly 6 out of 10 teens say they met a new friend online, and 20% of the teens who met people online followed up in person.
    "So, I think from a genXer or baby boomer type of viewpoint, we see this video and we view it akin to 'Oh my God, I can't believe people who met online are meeting offline' but I think what really needs to be understood is that that's actually kind of the way that our society is headed," he said. "Older generations met offline and took the relationship offline, but teenagers reverse the equation as social media may be replacing public squares for initial meeting spots."
    Parents would be on the wrong track, Polgar said, if they tell their kids never to agree to meet people they met online in person. Instead, we should encourage our children, borrowing a phrase from the Cold War, to "trust but verify," he said. We should talk with our kids about the inherent risks involved in meeting online contacts in person, and encourage them to use common sense such as meeting in public places, and use whatever tools they can to try to verify who the person really is.
    "I can't imagine us saying, 'OK, you're never going to meet somebody that you just met online.' I think the best avenue is going to be how do we become smart about it?" said Polgar.
    Pressure on Facebook, Twitter, SnapChat and other social networks may be part of the answer, Polgar said. They need to come up with better verification systems so users can know for certain the people they are communicating with are who they claim to be, he said, adding that increasing awareness about how easy it is to fake profiles also goes a long way.
    In fact, Vincent O'Keefe, a professor turned parenting writer and stay-at-home father of two girls, ages 12 and 15, said his youngest daughter was especially shocked when she saw how the face featured on the Facebook profile in the video did not match the person sending the messages.
    "I could see the hamster wheel in her head spinning, which is exactly what I was hoping for," said O'Keefe of Cleveland, who hopes to publish a humorous memoir he wrote titled "Been There, Wiped That" about his journey as a stay-at-home dad.
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    "So I thank the video-maker for giving my family a vivid touchstone for talking about the predator issue now and in the future."
    Katie Greer, a national Internet safety expert who has provided Internet and technology safety training to schools, law enforcement agencies and community organizations for nearly a decade, says the video shows how crucial it is for parents to continue to talk with their kids about being safe online.
    She points to the example of a seventh grade girl she met after a presentation in Washington. The girl met a guy on Kik messenger, who said he was her age and talked about getting together in person. She later learned he was an older man from Connecticut.
    "Her parents never had this conversation with her because they didn't think they had to," said Greer. Their daughter was in the top 3% of her class, beautiful and had good friends. "She was a good kid and her parents didn't think they needed to have this conversation so they did not have the conversation and that's the dangerous part."
    Greer also routinely asks high school students how many Instagram followers they have and 70% of the kids have more than 1,500 followers, which should be a concern to their parents, she said.
    We wouldn't let our kids hang out with strangers at the mall -- let alone 1,500 strangers, she said. "We ask them questions. Who do you want to hang out with? Who are you going to be with?" she said. Those are the same questions we should be asking our kids about their followers and who they are communicating with online.
    "Just because you don't see someone face to face doesn't mean there's no harm in that," she said.

    Would you show your kids the video?

    Kelli Arena, a mom of three in Houston, said she would show her kids the video, but she didn't need to make that decision. Her oldest daughter, 17, showed it to Arena and her younger siblings because she couldn't believe the parents would scare their daughters like they did to teach them a lesson.
    Arena's younger children, ages 13 and 15, had a different take. In particular, they thought the girl Jenna, who got into the van, was crazy for getting into a car with someone she didn't know. "My son, 13, said he felt bad for her for being humiliated in public but hoped that maybe she would behave differently from now on," said Arena, an award-winning journalist and executive director of the Global Center for Journalism and Democracy at Sam Houston State University.
    As for Arena's older daughter, she said videos like this one make her skeptical. "She says 'dramatizations' sometimes trivialize situations and make people her age think the problem isn't as big as parents want them to believe."
    There is always that danger that using scare tactics like the scenarios in this video will fall flat on the intended audience: tweens and teens.
    What may also have been lost, according to the parents and experts I talked with, is a chance to show how teens and parents can work together to resolve their concerns.
    Screaming at your children and demanding they don't do something again are not the most effective ways to communicate with a child and get results, any parenting expert will tell you.
    "What made me sad was that (at least inside the van immediately after the 'prank' was revealed to the daughter), the 'event' didn't create a dialogue. It created a lecture," said Sharon Kennedy, a mom of two girls near Denver and co-founder of the educational consulting company Room 228.
    "What an opportunity for those parents to hear the thought process behind her reasons for getting into the van. Then they could break it down from there to generate ideas together on how to stay safe in the future. I think it was a missed opportunity."
    Would you show the 'child predator social experiment' to children? Share your thoughts with Kelly Wallace on Twitter @kellywallacetv or CNN Parents on Facebook.