Double Take: Parents must weigh Internet, sex education carefully

Wes: If you’ve not read about the murder of 13-year-old Nicole Lovell in Blacksburg, Va., last week, it’s worth your time to examine. It’s a particularly disturbing case for me. Each of the teens involved — the victim, the alleged murderer and his confessed accomplice — are familiar characters. I see idiosyncratic middle schoolers with older online friends who love costume-play and anime. I see young women who cut themselves and consider suicide, and young men who seem quite normal to the world but harbor secret lists of bad ideas and judgments. But I have never seen a case like this one. It redefines bizarre.

Double Take columnists Gabe Magee and Dr. Wes Crenshaw

In considering this bleak story, we must struggle with several conflicting realities. First, contrary to popular opinion, Nicole’s death has little to do with the Internet and a lot to do with our American teenagers’ unguided missile of sexuality. In his take on the case, David Finkelhor, famous in my field for child advocacy and director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, cautions against parental Internet paranoia, noting, “Although there has been an increase in crimes that have some social media-related nexus to them, the overall level of child victimization — including sexual assaults and kidnapping and even peer bullying — has declined. So it’s a complicated picture.” It is indeed. As a society, we teach teens precious little about sexuality and then expect them somehow to go out and live with it, while hoping somehow that they won’t.

While a murder like this one is thankfully rare, the behavior Nicole exhibited is not. Though this girl seemed painfully naive, many middle school kids are heavily involved in online social media, and much of it is highly sexual. It has become common for 13- or 14-year-olds to exchange explicit, sometimes nude, pictures with peers from all over the globe and to hold out as their soulmates, persons they’ve never met IRL (in real life). As a culture, young teens see the online world quite the opposite of how we do — as infinitely safer and more supportive than their schools or communities. In fact, Nicole is said to have used the Internet as sanctuary from a peer group she found consistently cruel and rejecting of her differences.

This comes as no surprise to me. I see it every week right here in a college town not so different from Blacksburg. While our children are at little risk of Nicole’s terrible fate, her story is a worst-case scenario of sex miseducation in an Internet age.

Gabe: I don’t like politicizing losses like this. A young girl’s life was cut short, and two parents had to bury their child. But others will turn this event into a cause, no doubt. When passions run high, it’s easy to lose a rational footing and call for extreme measures, but such a tragedy is not a sign of a collapsing society brought on by the Internet, and the din surrounding it is hysteria.

In fact, I would go so far as to say the fear mongering that follows events such as these is actually harmful to children and their future sexualities, and perpetuates this cycle. The paranoia that parents oftentimes experience in the face of a story like this may cause them to restrict their children’s boundaries. This does nothing to change what their children want to or will do, so they just do it without their parents’ knowledge or guidance, leading to dangerous and unwise sexual decisions. Simply banning children from doing something isn’t going to stop them from pursuing it. You have to explain why you disapprove and guide them in baby steps towards making better decisions. Eventually you won’t be around to guide them, but those lessons stick around a lot longer than rules backed up by punishments.

Yes, the Internet can be dangerous. Yes, there are people out there who aim to do harm to children. But these realities are not as common as you think, and no reason to overreact and overprotect your kids. Blindly setting barriers for them will lead to more danger than showing them a better way.

— Wes Crenshaw, Ph.D., ABPP, is author of “I Always Want to Be Where I’m Not: Successful Living with ADD & ADHD.” Learn about his writing and practice at Gabe Magee is a Bishop Seabury Academy senior. Send your confidential 200-word question to Double Take opinions and advice are not a substitute for psychological services.