I’m raising a middle schooler who spends too much time on Snapchat, TikTok and YouTube, so I’m already on guard about the dangers that social media present to adolescents.
But the internet-driven mayhem unleashed on a family in Riverside the day after Thanksgiving has shaken me and every parent I know.
What authorities have said so far is that a 15-year-old girl was “catfished” online, hooked by a man posing as a 17-year-old boy. The man, 28-year-old Austin Lee Edwards, showed up at her home, and apparently killed her mother and grandparents, set the home on fire, then fled with the girl.
Hours later and miles away, Edwards, a Virginia law enforcement officer, killed himself.
Police said the girl was unhurt, at least physically. Can you imagine, though, her emotional wounds?
We don’t have many more the details about the incident, only the tragic outlines and an emerging understanding that Edwards had a troubling past. What we do know is enough to make me want to confiscate my 12-year-old niece’s iPad and lock her in a tower until she is 25.
Instead, what I have done is read news stories to her about the Riverside case, emphasizing that anyone can fall victim to this kind of deceit.
On Monday after school, I sat her in front of my computer, called up the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children website and played some short videos about catfishing and “sextortion.” The videos graphically illustrate how an adolescent boy or girl can be tricked into sending inappropriate photos, then be blackmailed for money or more explicit images by a person pretending to be someone other than who they are. If the youngsters fail to comply, the catfisher threatens to release their images publicly. The perpetrators make contact by posting fake profiles, sending friend requests and claiming to have friends in common with the victims. It is very easy to see how kids could be duped.
“For the first time in history,” says neuroscientist Andrew Doan in one of the videos, “we’re letting strangers interact with our kids — in the back of our car, in their bedrooms, in their homes.”
My niece was fascinated and surprised by the videos. I think — I pray — that she finally is beginning to understand that you cannot trust strangers on the internet.
Why is this so hard to grasp?
“Physiologically, they don’t understand who is out there and what people are capable of,” says Elizabeth Yusi, a federal prosecutor in Virginia, in one of the videos my niece watched. Yusi prosecuted the catfishing/sextortion case of a former Navy Top Gun pilot who ensnared at least nine girls between the ages of 12 and 17. The judge who sentenced the pilot to 600 months in prison said his actions were sadistic and equated them with torture.
Some months ago, my niece and a friend of hers were each at home, sitting on their beds, jointly playing a game on the Roblox site called “Adopt Me.” My niece’s friend had spent weeks gathering enough credits, or Robucks, to buy a Neon Owl icon. A stranger who entered the game asked to see the Neon Owl and promptly stole it.
Don’t ask me to explain how it happened; all I know is that my niece’s friend was inconsolable. Both were so upset they deleted Roblox, which was fine by me.
But here’s the thing that made my heart sink. Afterward, as my niece was telling me what happened, I said, “But I’ve told you a kajillion times that you can’t trust strangers on the internet, right?”
“Yes,” she said through tears. “But I guess I needed to have something bad happen before I believed you.”
As I read up on catfishing, I came across the names of some famous victims: former professional football player Manti Te’o and country music star Brad Paisley and his wife, actor Kimberly Williams-Paisley.
In 2012, Te’o, then a star Notre Dame player, was victimized by a young person in the throes of gender dysphoria who posed as a female Stanford University student. The “relationship” took place entirely online and in letters. Te’o was told that his “girlfriend” died of leukemia the same day his grandmother died. Reporters went crazy for the “heartbreaking and inspirational” story.
The ruse was discovered after Deadspin reporters got — and investigated — a tip that the girlfriend had never existed.
Around the same time, the Paisleys were catfished by a woman pretending to be the mother of a child terminally ill with brain cancer. The sick child had supposedly begged her mother to contact Williams-Paisley, then co-starring in the TV series “Nashville.” The mom didn’t ask the Paisleys for money. But Paisley sang “Amazing Grace” on the phone to the nonexistent child, which formed the basis for the “theft of services” charges that sent the hoaxer to jail.
I am spending a lot of time these days pondering how to balance my niece’s privacy with the lengths to which I need to go to keep her safe. I have decided to be a hard-ass. Her iPad belongs to me, I remind her. I have the passwords to her accounts, and I look at them regularly to keep tabs on her online activities.
“Are you looking at my messages?” she asked recently, curiosity tinged with outrage.
“Yes, I am,” I replied. “And I probably will until I feel confident that you understand that bad things can happen to kids who are too trusting online. You aren’t there yet.”
I don’t mind playing the wicked witch at home. It’s better than locking her up in a tower.