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
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.
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?
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.
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.”