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The killing of a 13-year-old girl last month allegedly by two Virginia Tech freshmen is shining a spotlight on anonymous messaging apps. All the details are not known, but the victim reportedly communicated with the suspects using an app called Kik. Police say messaging apps like Kik, that can be used anonymously, are linked to a growing number of crimes. Millions of teens use them. According to Kik itself, the app is used by 40 percent of American teenagers. But some researchers say children and teens are just as likely to be in danger offline. A discussion about what parents and teens need to know about anonymous messaging apps.
- Jennifer Golbeck Director of the Social Intelligence Lab and associate professor, College for Information Studies, University of Maryland; author, "Introduction to Social Media Investigation"
- Lt. James Bacon Head of the Fairfax County Police Department's child exploitation unit
- David Finkelhor Director, Crimes Against Children Research Center, and professor of sociology, the University of New Hampshire
- Sheryl Gay Stolberg National correspondent, The New York Times
Note: Our guest Jennifer Golbeck will be answering your questions in a live Facebook Q&A at 11 a.m. Eastern.
How To Keep Yourself—Or Your Teen—Safe
Police say messaging apps like Kik that can be used anonymously are linked to a growing number of crimes, our panelists told us in a recent show on the topic. According to Kik itself, the app is used by 40 percent of American teenagers.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Kik, Whisper, Snapchat, WhatsApp, these are some messaging apps popular with millions of teenagers. They can be used anonymously to send to texts or photos. Many parents don't even know their children are using them. Here to talk about anonymous messaging apps and online safety, Jenn Golbeck at the College For Information Studies at the University of Maryland and Sheryl Gay Stohlberg of the New York Times.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining us from a studio in Portland, Maine, David Finkelhor with the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. Jenn Goldbeck is staying after our show to answer your questions about anonymous messaging apps in a Facebook Q&A. You can post questions at Facebook.com/thedianerehmshow. You can also give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. And thank you all for being with us.
MS. JENNIFER GOLBECKGlad to be here.
MS. SHERYL GAY STOLBERGHappy to be here, Diane.
MR. DAVID FINKELHORThank you for inviting me.
REHMIndeed. And Sheryl, let's start with you. Give us some of the details about what we know regarding these two Virginia Tech students and the 13-year-old girl, how Kik got involved.
STOLBERGWell, so what we know is Nicole Madison Lovell, who is a 13-year-old liver transplant survivor and cancer survivor, in Blacksburg, Virginia, went missing and two Virginia Tech students were charged in her abduction and murder. Come to find out, she had -- two things. First, she had been posting on a teen dating and flirting group within Facebook, but also she apparently met or at least communicated with one of her accused murderers, her accused murderer on Kik. It's an anonymous messaging app that's basically an app that allows for anonymous conversations.
STOLBERGAnd neighbors said that she had been communicating with an 18-year-old boy. They planned to meet up one evening and she had told neighbors that she was dating this boy. She was only 13, of course, and then she went missing. And law enforcement officers investigated and eventually, you know, were lead to these two students in Blacksburg.
REHMMade that connection.
STOLBERGMade the connection, yes.
REHMBut if these are anonymous, how did they make the connection?
STOLBERGWell, they made the connection, actually, by going to Kik, the company, with a court order and they were able to -- I gather. The law enforcement officers haven't really talked about precisely how they made the connection. They don't want to give away their methods, but Kik, the company that runs this messaging app, did cooperate with them through a court order and worked to provide them information that ultimately the company says lead to the arrest of one of these students.
REHMNow, both Kik and Yik Yak declined our invitation to join the show, but Kik did send us a statement saying, "online safety is Kik's number one priority as a company. We're reviewing all aspects of safety in an effort to further improve the experience for our users and address concerns of parents. We know actions matter much more than words so we'll share more details as we make progress on these ongoing efforts. In the meantime, Kik continues to cooperate with law enforcement as needed anywhere in the world."
REHMIt ends by saying, "we encourage concerned parents to read our guide for parents available through Kik's website." Sheryl, police are really increasingly concerned about these websites.
STOLBERGPolice are increasingly concerned about these websites. What we found when we looked into Kik, we want to know, well, what is this app? So we did a search of Kik and just basic news articles and found that in the last three months, there had been some three dozen cases investigated by law enforcement involving Kik. And these were everything from a group for child pornography was operating in the St. Louis area. A western New York man posing as a teenager used Kik to meet a 14-year-old girl, sent her sexually explicit messages.
STOLBERGA 35-year-old man in Alabama met an communicated with a girl on Kik, was charged with statutory rape of the girl. And so we started interviewing law enforcement officers and what we found were two big concerns. One is that because Kik is anonymous and it doesn't save messages and it doesn't save its content and it's an app that allows for the transfer of photographs, it can be hard for law enforcement officers who are investigating these kinds of cases to simply obtain the necessary information. That's number one.
STOLBERGNumber two is this whole issue of sextortion in which a predator may use these kinds of online apps to reach out to a vulnerable girl, let's say, typically a girl, and say, send me a nude picture of yourself. And then, once the child does this, then they say, okay. If you don't keep sending me more of these pictures, I'm going to tell your parents or I'm going to cause you some harm. And so they set up, in essence, a blackmail situation. Now, I would say one caution.
STOLBERGWe did some reporting and you'll hear from your guest David Finkelhor later that vulnerable children don't become vulnerable because of technology. Vulnerable kids, those who maybe are distressed or depressed or have conflict with their parents, may use technology in a way that places them in danger and this is posing challenges for...
REHMSheryl Gay Stohlberg of the New York Times. To you, Jenn Goldbeck, explain how these apps actually work, why kids are, by the millions, beginning to use them.
GOLBECKYeah, especially Kik. They have 240 million users. The site itself or the app itself estimates that's 40 percent of all teens in the U.S. have a Kik account. So it is absolutely the way these kids are communicating. So we say it's anonymous, but it's sort of pseudo anonymous. You have a user name so it doesn't have to be your actual name. In fact, they encourage you to not use your actual name so people can't track you down and find where you are, but you do have a user name.
GOLBECKSo I could look you up if I have your email address or if I have your phone number, I could find you. I could ask you what's your Kik handle. And it basically works like texting. So we have a private conversation. We can send text messages, photos, gifts, videos to each other. So if you text, Kik will look very similar to that. It has an advantage, especially if you're a teen because it doesn't use up your text message allotment from your service provider.
GOLBECKIt goes over WiFi or data. So it's little different in, like, the underlying technology, but also your parents can monitor your text messages and they can't monitor your Kik messages unless they happen to have your login to Kik. And so that's why it's very attractive. The parents can't see it.
REHMJenn Golbeck, she's director of the social intelligence lab. She's an associate professor at the University of Maryland. To you, David Finkelhor, you argue, as Sheryl has just intimated that technology is not really the problem, that these kids are in just as much danger offline as they are online.
FINKELHORWell, first, we do acknowledge that this crime against Nicole Lovell was really very sad and tragic and, obviously, frightening to parents and law enforcement. And we know of other cases where kids have gotten into a lot of trouble online and when we're upset, we want to blame something or we want to have something to fix, but my view is that getting caught up with blaming social media is not what we should be doing. The research from the last 20 years says really that children's safety comes from, one, having a network of good relationships with parents and peers and, two, from developing broad decision-making and self management skills that protect them in a lot of different environments, schools, home, neighborhood and online because it really turns out that the internet and social apps are not particularly dangerous environments.
FINKELHORAll environments are dangerous for kids compared to adults, but the internet is not especially dangerous. The data say that of the roughly 50,000 sex crimes against children each year that result in arrest, only 3 percent involved online or electronic communication. Most crimes against kids, homicides and sex crimes, occur at the hands of people in their close social networks. Family members, school mates, neighbors, gang rivals. So we have to keep this bigger picture in mind and not sort of see the solution as warning kids off social media apps or somehow managing them in a different way.
REHMSo are you saying that from your perspective, if you balance it out, these apps do more good than harm? Is that what you're saying?
FINKELHORWell, one really very telling and important statistic is that during the last 20 years, as kids are increasingly going online, the crime rates against children have been plummeting and so have delinquency rates. If the internet and these social media apps were endangering kids, we wouldn't have seen this. So the digital environment can be dangerous, but it...
REHMAll right. David Finkelhor, he is director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. We'll take a short break here and be right back.
REHMWelcome back. And joining us now by phone from Fairfax County, Va., Lieutenant James Bacon. He's the head of the Fairfax County Police Department's child exploitation unit. He says crimes linked to Kik have become common. And I want to thank you for joining us. Tell us how often you investigate crimes involving children or teenagers related to Kik or any other messaging app.
LT. JAMES BACONWell, thanks for having me. And, first, I'd like to say that we investigate those kind of crimes every day. It's just -- it's what the entire squad here does. And it's not just Kik. Kik is the one that's in the headlines right now. But there are many, many apps that kids get involved in that expose themselves, I guess, to a part of society that it's -- we'd probably prefer that kids weren't involved in, you know?
REHMAnd tell me why you think it's so attractive to predators.
BACONWell, there's probably a couple of reasons. I mean, first of all, the reality of it is that people like Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy, Jack the Ripper, are still out there. They always have been and they always will be. It's just that, nowadays, to go out and stalk their prey, for the most part they don't even have to leave their house. They can sit right at home on a laptop or a desktop and do it online.
REHMYour unit actually caught a State Department official trying to arrange to have sex with a 14-year-old girl.
REHMHow did you do that?
BACONWell, I can't talk about that case specifically. That case hasn't been adjudicated in court yet. But I would tell you that we typically, in many of our cases, besides getting cases brought to us from patrol officers, brought to us from the street, brought to us from parents, we proactively go online using an undercover persona of someone underage -- an underage boy or girl. And we are out there basically cruising these websites, making ourselves available to anyone who wants to try to pick us up. And when they do, we let them lead the conversation.
BACONAnd when it gets to a point where they've crossed the line and they have solicited us and are wanting to and willing to meet us for sex, and ultimately we set that up. And generally the people are very disappointed when they get there and find out that we're not a seven, eight-year-old little boy and that it's a group of policemen.
REHMJenn Golbeck, during our break, you were talking about the vulnerability of young children, especially those who feel as though they're being bullied.
GOLBECKYeah, you know, I was saying, this -- it was definitely a problem for me all through elementary through high school. I was, you know, harassed. I had a couple of close friends but mostly was bullied in all different kinds of ways. The Internet kind of came to us right at the end of high school. But if I had had access to some of these apps or to AOL chat rooms when I was in middle school, I completely see myself in Nicole Lovell. Like, if there were an 18-year-old who had paid me attention and been nice to me, I would have done all sorts of things I know I shouldn't have.
GOLBECKBecause without the Internet, I was very isolated, right? I was in a small town. Everybody knew me. Nobody liked me. And I kind of had nowhere to go where I could get some positive attention from someone. So I can absolutely see the appeal of getting positive attention and compliments and being treated differently than you are at school if you go online and people are doing that. Even if they're going to exploit you.
REHMSheryl, did you talk to some of these young people who are using these apps and find out why they're using...
STOLBERGYou know, we didn't talk to young people because we focused on arrests and law enforcement. They were victims but it's very easy to see why. In Nicole Lovell's case, she was bullied in school. She had a tracheotomy scar from her liver transplant. She felt, you know, school was very difficult for her. And in other cases that we've looked at as well, young people who were vulnerable, those were the people, clearly, who were becoming victims in the online world. And it's, frankly, hard to -- not to see how the online world, which is vast and which connects us with everyone, doesn't expose vulnerable young people to a wide array of strangers that they can't possibly meet in their small town, as Jennifer just said.
REHMNow, you have your own teenage children?
STOLBERGI do. Well, my children are getting out of the teenage years. I have a 17 and a 21 year old. Thankfully, I'm not worried about my girls. They're great girls. But when my girls started on social media, they wanted to sign up for Facebook back then. That's what they did. The condition was, I had to be their friend. And, you know, I don't worry about my girls. My girls and I talk about everything. We talk about private things. We -- when I reported this story, I asked my 17 year old, do you have Kik? And she said, no, I don't. And I said, do your friends have it? And she said, no, they don't. It's not something that we use.
STOLBERGThey -- there's no need for them. Kik is kind of like Twitter without handles. You know, you can't see somebody's profile. So -- but it's something that I have a relationship with my children where I'm, frankly, not worried that my kids are vulnerable. But for a vulnerable child like Nicole Lovell, as a parent, as an educator, and for -- certainly for law enforcement officials, that's who you really have to worry about.
REHMHere's what I'm wondering about. And this, Lieutenant Bacon, perhaps you can respond to. I know that in this latest case of this poor 13 year old, Kik cooperated with the police. But I gather the company says it does not have the ability to see messages between users. Is that correct?
BACONWell, Kik is a Canadian company. And what they physically have up there, I don't know. I know that when we try to get information out of Kik -- and it's not just Kik, it's others -- there is only a limited amount of information that they keep that they can provide to us. Usually, it's only when we sent a subpoena, only the subscriber information. And that information doesn't necessarily prove to be accurate. Because a lot of these online places -- not just Kik, but a lot of them -- there's no verification as to who's making the account.
BACONYou could pull up your Smartphone and make an account for some kind of game or any other thing online, make up a fake name, make up a fake email, and if there's no verification, really the only thing we get out of them is the IP address sometimes, which tells us basically where the computer is and we have to follow it up from there. We can't arrest a computer. We have to try to figure out who it is that's using it.
REHMBut, David, you argue that the Internet actually helps police catch people who are attempting to violate another human being.
FINKELHORYes. And I think that the Internet has protective effects that we haven't discussed enough about. So in addition to all the stings that are being conducted that have caught people at earlier stages in their offending cycle, kids these days are carrying around cell phones in their pocket. A cell phone can be used to summon help or get advice, it's a crime-prevention tool. Kids are staying at home more and more and doing their adventure seeking online instead of in the face-to-face world, where a crime is just an arm's reach away. And the trails the offenders leave online these days trying to seduce kids make it much easier to catch them and prosecute them than ever before.
FINKELHORSo, I mean, we can scare ourselves about the technology and imagine the worst. But I think we have to look at the big, complicated picture. There's always good and bad to change. And the statistics tell us that kids are actually getting safer as their online engagement expands. So I don't think we should be focusing primarily on the dangers of these social media apps.
STOLBERGWell, I guess that may be true in the aggregate. But in the particular, some kids are using these social media apps to meet people in the face-to-face world, which puts them in harm's way. And I guess I would say, one thing that was very troubling was this whole issue of sextortion and the pornography and the ease in -- with which predators can use the online world to traffic in child pornography, which is a terrible...
STOLBERG...thing for young children.
GOLBECKYeah. And I'll just agree that it's really complicated, right? Because there are definitely all of these stories of bad things that have happened and they're absolutely happening, no question. But there are also a lot of supportive places online that also give an outlet to kids like I was in high school, right? You can find communities there. And you do have more connection. Your parents can track your location by tracking -- by using Find My iPhone and see where you are. Where if I snuck out of the house, no one would know where I was.
REHMNow you've got another app, Yik Yak, which apparently very popular with college students. Now, because they're a little older, is that likely to be less dangerous?
GOLBECKSo, Yik Yak is interesting. It's completely anonymous. You don't get a user name, it's totally anonymous. And it looks up your location. And so your posts are basically visible to people who are near you. So they can see, for example, on your campus, you can see what other people are posting on your campus. It has been less a tool for this kind of exploitation because it's harder to have these one-on-one conversations than on a site like Kik. But it's been used a lot for harassment.
GOLBECKSo someone will say, oh, Jenn Golbeck needs to stop doing this stupid thing that she does. And lots of people will pile on about that. There's no way to tell who those people are. And that makes some people who want to do that kind of harassment feel freer, because there's no way to identify them. That's been their real issue. They do seem committed to trying to find a way to stop that. They seem authentic about their desire to kind of weed that out from the app. But that seems to be the main way it's used.
REHMAnd, Lieutenant Bacon, I gather Yik Yak is another one concerning police.
BACONIt does. It's just one of any number of websites and apps that concern us. And the way the revolution or the evolution is going, you know, it's just the latest thing and we're constantly playing catch-up. We have to figure out what the kids are on, because the predators will figure out what the kids are on and then we have to meet them there and we have to figure out how to defeat them. So we're constantly playing catch-up. You know, Facebook was the big thing. Before that was My Space. Right now it's Kik and some others. And who knows what it'll be in another two years.
REHMSheryl, tell us about the crime at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia that did involve Yik Yak.
STOLBERGIn a tangential way. We're not certain what the connection is. But at the University of Mary Washington, a young woman, a feminist leader at that school named Grace Rebecca Mann, was murdered. And at the time of her death, she was strangled. And a house -- her housemaid, an older male, was charged. Not -- they weren't in a relationship. And it was kind of a mystery.
STOLBERGSome months later, a lawyer who I knew contacted me and said that she represented a group of feminists at the University of Mary Washington that had included Grace Mann and that, for months before Grace's death, these women had gone to university administrators to say that they were being threatened and bullied on Yik Yak, with really terribly harassing and threatening comments, including some and which targeted Grace Mann personally and said where she was going to be on campus. Another one said something like, we've got to tie these feminists to a radiator and grape them in the mouth -- grape used as a euphemism for rape, so that it wouldn't be taken down from Yik Yak.
STOLBERGAnd the women had complained and they asked the university to do something about it. The university said, we're very sorry. This is a free-speech issue. There is nothing we can do about it. And so this lawyer has filed a Title IX complaint with the Department of Education asking them to remind universities that they have an obligation to create a harassment-free environment for their students. It's not clear whether these Yik Yak threats were connected to this woman's murder. But it is clear that she didn't feel safe.
REHMAnd we did invite Yik Yak to come on the show but they declined. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I want to go to the phones, 800-433-8850. First to Karen in St. Louis, Mo. You're on the air.
KARENHi, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.
KARENI just wanted to make a comment about your male guest that was speaking about how the Internet is not, really it's not quite as dangerous as we all think it is. And I just feel like we need a broader definition of what danger is. I mean, yeah, most children are not going to be abducted and murdered by a pedophile who has been stocking them online. But what about just the way -- the casualness of these apps, it provides a sense of no accountability, a real casualness about sexting and that kind of thing. And what is that hearing? And younger and younger kids are getting on these apps. What is that doing to their brains as they develop, in regards to -- and what might it do to their futures?
KARENBecause we think that all these things are anonymous but, like with Snapchat, you know, you can capture a picture. You can -- I just wonder, you know, he talks about the research things, the Internet isn't as dangerous. But I feel like that was a really narrow definition of the detriment that these apps can...
KAREN...have for kids in their futures.
REHMOkay. David, do you want to comment?
FINKELHORSure. Every generation of adults and parents thinks that the next generation, their children, are going off the rails and getting into trouble that is going to ruin them. The data on young people today actually shows some very encouraging things. It's not just declines in sex crime and homicide, but we also see declines in bullying. We see declines in teenage pregnancy and risky sexual behavior. And we see less drug use and alcohol usage. And it is possible that the Internet having malign effects on this generation of young people. But, to be honest, it's pretty hard to find that in the sociological data on young people today.
REHMAll right. Jenn.
GOLBECKYeah, I think one point that I think Karen maybe was getting at is that there's a different set of risks now that are not the ones that we're measuring. I don't disagree with David at all. But there's a big question about what's going to happen when your life, from age eight or nine, is posted and archived and accessible. I spend a lot of my time going around and talking about the algorithms that computer scientists like me are developing that can find out all kinds of secret things about you that you might hide.
GOLBECKI talk to middle schoolers about this. And what I found is, it's very hard to get them to understand the future consequences of the things that they're doing now. Oh, people won't care about that. Oh, they're not going to look at it. Oh, it'll be forgiven. You know, they don't know what it's like to have a divorce lawyer or a custody battle where they're going to pull out everything they can about you. And I found that there are a few tools out there -- and we can talk about this later if you want to -- that make a very visceral message to these kids. Which is the only way that I've found to get them to see, oh, like there are potentially real consequences.
GOLBECKSo my favorite one to show is this website called Take This Lollipop. You can Google Take This Lollipop or it's at takethislollipop.com. It's for Facebook. That's not the main way kids are communicating, but most teens -- 80, 90 percent -- have Facebook accounts. And it creates this interactive video that's about two minutes long of this kind of creepy, stalker guy looking through your pictures, your Facebook page, all of your posts, what your friends are doing, finding your address and tracking you down. It's a safe website to use. They're not going to steal your data. But it really brings home the message that this has impact.
REHMJenn Golbeck of the University of Maryland. She will be staying on afterwards, after the program, to take your calls and comments. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back as we talk about online apps that certainly young people from teen, even younger, on through college are using. There have been some instances, even where murder is involved through the use of these apps. Let's go now to Sasha in Minneapolis, you're on the air.
SASHAHi Diane. Thanks for taking my call.
SASHAI'm a 27-year-old professional out in Minneapolis, and I feel like I kind of have the flip side of the coin on this. I was a victim, as a middle-schooler, of an online crime, and now I find myself a little bit more careful when I'm online, especially using dating websites. So I've actually utilized Kik in the past for online dating in order to keep my personal information a little bit closer to me and not disclose my phone number until I'm ready to and feel a little bit more comfortable with the person that I'm speaking to. So I feel like it has a good personal safety aspect to it, but I don't know if any of your experts on the line could kind of comment on how, you know, the effects of having your personal information out there as a younger child, how that affects you as an adult.
REHMLt. Bacon, I'd be interested in your response.
BACONWell, the first thing I would say is that our information is out there all over the place as it is. It doesn't take that long to find, you know, real information about somebody, having nothing to do with these apps or everything. It's just the world that we live in today. One of the things, though, that we see is younger adults nowadays truly regretting what they did a few years ago as a juvenile, sending that picture or sending that story or recounting an encounter that they had years ago that now comes back to bite them, you know, a few years later in life.
BACONAnd some of those things, I can't tell you any specific cases, but some of those things have led as far as suicide for people. I won't tell you that that didn't happen before the Internet and before these apps, but it certainly is easier now, and it's more prevalent now because it's just the click of a button.
GOLBECKYeah, you know, and there's a way that even if you're not, say, posting nude pictures of yourself, sending things that you regret, these kids are interacting online, and so, you know, they want to post silly pictures with their friends. So I've written a book on how to investigate people online. And when I was going through that, I was looking at how these different kind of traditional social media sites have been used for investigations.
GOLBECKAnd one of the most disturbing that I found was on Pinterest, which is a site where you kind of catalog pictures on what they call boards, which they're kind of like a corkboard, where you'd hang up pictures. And they had caught a pedophile who had been convicted, released from prison, and he had a message board where he just collected pictures of eight-, nine-, 10-year-old girls online who weren't in sexual positions, they all just had their mouths open.
GOLBECKAnd it was one of the most -- I mean, I still get, like, creeped out thinking about it, and if you're one of those girls, and you find your picture on this board that's clearly sexual, you had no interest in it being used that way, it can have these repercussions that aren't just, like, oh, I shared a naked picture with someone. It's I have no control over my identify and image and how it's used. And that can be damaging.
STOLBERGI was going to say, I think this caller in a way perfectly encapsulates the discussion that we're having, which is on the one hand, she was victimized in the online world as a child. And so as an adult, she is using the very app that law enforcement officials are concerned about to protect herself. So she's using anonymity in the flip way. She's using it, as she said, to hold her information close. So I think that's really what we have to put our finger on is what are the particular challenges, not the aggregate of, you know, sex crimes against kids are dropping or whatever, but the particular challenges that we all face and especially vulnerable young children face living in this online world.
REHMAnd Randy in San Antonio, Texas has a comment about that very issue. Go ahead, Randy.
RANDYHi Diane, thank you for taking my call.
RANDYI just wanted to remind all the parents out there that the majority of your mobile device platforms have parental controls, where you can set up a password so your kids can't add apps without that password. Additionally, if Officer Bacon is the same individual I think of, I believe your wife taught me English in high school.
BACONWow, wouldn't that be something.
REHMOfficer Bacon, is that you?
BACONWouldn't that be something?
REHMIs your wife a teacher?
BACONShe has taught. She's not a teacher anymore. So...
REHMI see. All right, Randy, I think your point is well taken, don't you?
GOLBECKYeah, and so this is what I'm going to talk about on your Facebook page after the show, but just, I'll throw in a few quick little things. You absolutely can set up those parental controls. If you have a younger kid, and I think those are the groups that we're more concerned about, not the 17-year-olds, have one account for them to download apps. So they don't have their own account to download apps, they have to go through yours, since you pay for it anyway.
GOLBECKIf you do that, you can set it up so that any app that your child downloads will also be downloaded to your device so you can see exactly what they're downloading. That works on iPhone. If you have Android, you can go to the Play store and see all the apps that have been downloaded on an account. We can talk about that on Facebook.
REHMNow here's a tweet from CJ, who says what about adults talking to kids over the Xbox or PlayStation? it's disgusting, says CJ.
GOLBECKYeah, and really not just for kids, for any female who goes and plays games online, it's disgusting. So for those who aren't gamers, the Xbox, if you're playing, say, one of these war, first-person shooter games, it's no longer like it was in the '90s, where you play by yourself until the game is done. You can play with other people. So there's online social networks. There's rooms that you can join and kind of play with strangers, which can make it interesting to go on these missions.
GOLBECKBut there are terrible things said in those rooms, both to children and to women of all ages.
REHMAll right, and to Louisville, Kentucky, Carissa, you're on the air.
CARISSAHello. I'm very concerned about the expert that said that she has a good relationship with her kids, and so therefore she's not worried about that. Years and years ago, I was a vulnerable teen, and the reason I was vulnerable is because no one knew. That was the point is that I did have good relationships. I had a good core relationship with my peers, but there was a part of me that was still vulnerable that I didn't feel connected. And I'm concerned about the parents, that children get into this, that they are going to think it's their fault because they didn't ask, or they didn't try hard enough.
CARISSAI have a teenager that I think I have a good relationship with, but he makes his own choices, and sometimes they're bad.
STOLBERGWell, I think she raises a good point, and of course my children, as I said, are 17 and 21. They're a little bit past the younger years. But she makes an excellent point. Parents can never, you know, truly know everything. We actually, I'm fascinated by this new book by the mother of Dylan Klebold, the Columbine killer, who has a new book out talking about her own personal tragedy. So yeah, she makes an excellent point. You never really can know what's going on inside the mind of another person, as we have seen over and over again.
STOLBERGI guess parents just have to do the best that they possibly can to understand their children's needs, their habits online and create open lines of communications that will prevent vulnerable children from coming in harm's way.
REHMAll right, to Eileen in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, you're on the air.
EILEENThank you. I've been following with interest your discussion of children, but I'm wondering if anyone has thought about the effect of the ease of Internet use on the population of sex offenders. Law enforcement people in my own family believe that it is -- there are -- more and more act on their impulses because it is so easy to do, compared -- where the temptation to act would not have existed 20 years or 50 years ago because it would have remained an impulse that could not be easily realized.
EILEENAnd then I just wanted to comment on, you know, particularly your male expert has been citing studies, and I'm an academic, and I would love to know how many studies, how many people were in their studies, what the dates were of these studies because it's very easy to say that crimes against children have gone down...
REHMAll right, David Finkelhor?
FINKELHORI know I have a hard job here because people are so persuaded that this isn't the case from seeing all the stories in the news about crimes against kids, but the data are quite solid. The National Crime Victimization Survey, which is our nation's most thorough and rigorous measurement of crime, even crimes that aren't reported to the police, show a 60 percent decline in sex crimes against children starting in 1992. The FBI data that tracks crimes shows big declines in sexual assault.
FINKELHORAnd the number of surveys that have been done of all the young people in the sixth, ninth, and 12th grade in Minnesota, the National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect. There's -- I could cite many studies that back up this finding, and it's unfortunately that it hasn't gotten more attention. I don't mean to say that children are safe by any means. They still are victimized at rates that exceed that of adults. Still many, many terrible crimes occur to them.
FINKELHORBut it is important, when we think that there is some technology that has been introduced that might be amplifying the risk to them that we go and look at the statistics to see does -- is it showing up there? And it's not. And I think that that should moderate our anxiety about how just how risky this technology is.
REHMAll right, let's go now to Patrick in Baltimore, Maryland, you're on the air.
PATRICKHi, thank you for taking my call.
PATRICKWell, I have actually an interesting perspective on this because I'm not only a father of a six-year-old boy, who is now getting into electronics, but I'm also a registered sex offender for downloading child pornography about eight or nine years ago. I will say as a father, I'm very concerned about my son being online. But I also, having been through this -- through the mill, so to speak, for this crime, have gotten a perspective on what it means to actually be a sex offender.
PATRICKWe sex offenders are not these faceless, soulless people prowling around. We are individuals with lives. We're sons and fathers and have daughters. And I just have to say, I think that it's important to remember my first concern for my son is the people around him. If I'm correct, the statistics actually show that most sexual abuse happens at the hands of people who know the children or are in close proximity. But because of what I think this gentleman is saying in terms of our -- the media presence and the fear factor, we -- sex offenders, even those of us who are moving on and trying to move on with our lives, are so vilified, and it's very, very difficult to even make inroads back into society.
PATRICKI think what should be really -- you could take a look at is the underlying mental health issues going on not only in terms of online sex offenders but also those with those predilections that are closer to the children.
REHMAll right, Lieutenant Bacon, do you want to make a comment?
BACONWell yeah. The one thing I would say is that, you know, if you had a person standing outside the men's room, and every little boy that came out, he said, hey, little boy, can I talk to you, why the cops -- somebody would call the cops on him before he finished talking to the second little boy. Nowadays, a person that's online can send out hundreds or thousands of messages flirting with little boys and girls before anybody is ever the wiser.
BACONSo the previous caller, I would say that it's just easier. I wouldn't say that we have more predators. I would just say that we have predators doing a lot more stuff or at least trying to do a lot more stuff because of the availability of the Internet and how widespread it is.
BACONTo this caller, and, you know, him talking about the sex offender registry, I wish I could give you some kind of statistic, but I will say is that it is not uncommon for us to find somebody that we wind up charging with something that's already on the sex offender registry. My squad deals with repeat offenders and having to register sex offenders, and I would like to say that -- I wish I could give you a number, but I would like to say that it does not surprise us when the same name pops up again and again.
REHMAll right, and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Jen, I know you wanted to add.
GOLBECKI wanted to follow on what he was saying because I think this gets to Eileen, the previous caller's point, which is you have a lot more access, right. So I am not arguing with David that most of these crimes are occurring from people that you're nearby, right, that you're physically in proximity with. But you do have this ability to access a much larger population online, and so your hit rate's going to very low, right. Most children online are not going to respond to people who are soliciting them. So it's going to be a small percentage.
GOLBECKBut you can just sit there and solicit thousands of people if you want to, and that's a thing that I think is concerning. It's not necessarily that it increases the rate of these crimes, which is the point that David's been making, but it feels a lot more concerning when there's this kind of constant, visible solicitation of children, even if they don't become victims.
REHMSo we've clearly got a problem here. I'd like to use the rest of the very, very few minutes we have. What are your thoughts on solutions? I'm going to start with you, David Finkelhor.
FINKELHORSo unfortunately we have a lot of, I think, information we're putting out that are primarily about scaring people, exhortations to the parents, monitor what your kids are doing online, don't give out personal information. I think a lot of this is too vague, too general. We have a fair amount of guidance from the research right now that says, for example, things like socio-emotional learning programs that are added to the school curriculum that give opportunities to kids to practice refusal skills, refusal of drugs, sex, sexual solicitations, how to get help and how to overcome the embarrassment or reluctance to bring in adults. These are the kinds of things we should be teaching.
STOLBERGI guess I would say, you know, I'm stumped as to very specific solutions, but I'm a reporter. I believe in free speech and a free society and in disseminating information. And I think the more we have these kinds of conversations and the more newspapers like mine write about these issues, the more we're all educated about them as a society.
BACONWell, the Internet is like a swimming pool or maybe driving a car. No parent lets their kid just go swim as a little kid without lessons. Nobody gets a driver's license without going through some kind of training. I think parents need to be right there with their kids when they're online, when they're younger and beginning, and they need to keep an eye on them throughout. And if your kid is doing fine, you can give them a little more leeway, but if they're not, you need to have all the passwords, you need to know all the accounts, you need to pay attention to what your kids are doing online.
GOLBECKAs a computer scientist, finding a technological solution that just blocks these sorts of things is extremely challenging. I'm doing funded research on that now because we don't have a known solution. That said, there are a lot of tips that parents can follow, and I'll be on your Facebook page giving some.
REHMIndeed. Jen Golbeck is staying after the show to answer your questions. Post those questions at facebook.com/thediamerehmshow. Sheryl Gay Stolberg is a correspondent for The New York Times. David Finkelhor is at the University of New Hampshire. And Lieutenant James Bacon is head of the Fairfax County Police Department's Child Exploitation Unit. Thank you all so much.
REHMAnd thanks, all, for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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