After weeks of concern over her daughter’s social media use, Kim Faulkner sat down with the 11-year-old last week to explain what had happened just 30 miles away: 14-year-old Tristan Dilley was found dead in her Buna home.
Faulkner, who lives in Orange County, said Dilley’s death escalated a conversation she already was having with her daughter Presley about how much time she was spending in a virtual world.
She started the conversation by talking about phone use, and said, “Let me explain why this is a big deal, especially not communicating with people you don’t know,” Faulkner said. “I think it was a reality check for her.”
Police traced a contact in Dilley’s phone for Adam, a 16-year-old she told her parents she’d been talking with, to Paul Adams, 19, who police believe used the same gun to take his own life on Oct. 2 that was used to kill Dilley the day before.
In a note released by police, Adams wrote that they were sneaking around to see each other when he alleged someone else entered her home and killed her. Officials say the two met through an older relative of Dilley, but Dilley’s parents had never seen Adams in person.
Social media is designed to facilitate connections between people who don’t know each other or aren’t in the same place, which “sets the stage for dangerous encounters,” said Robert Faris, a sociologist at University of California Davis.
The constantly changing web of apps and ways to communicate, which go far beyond just calling and texting, open up a Pandora’s box of ways for teenagers to talk to each other and to build and conceal their online lives.
While it’s not inherently negative, and while issues like bullying and dating violence take place in the “real world” too, social media “changes the game,” Faris said.
Vulnerability in virtual world
On these sites, where follower counts and comments quantify popularity and compliments are currency, teenagers become vulnerable to each other and to strangers, Faris said.
“What we see is that it sets up a situation where kids have a goal of building their follower base, trying to become amateur celebrities, so they don’t see it as a red flag to have a bunch of followers that are strangers,” he said.
Even if the people they’re communicating with aren’t entirely unknown – they may have mutual friends or connections through other people – they aren’t just people they’re interacting with face-to-face regularly, which comes with pitfalls.
People can curate online personalities and forge relationships based on those personas that leave teenagers vulnerable. Cyberbullying actually happens less frequently than traditional bullying, he said, but social media puts a magnifying glass over those issues and opens them up to a wider audience.
Social media is “like rocket fuel,” he said. The constant communication is around the clock, and word travels faster.
The relationship between dating violence and social media hasn’t been studied extensively, Faris said, but “we do see higher rates of online aggression between current and former dating partners” than other connections, and the amplification of social media to an audience applies to dating violence as well.
Research has revealed a gender dynamic on social media too: Younger teenage girls are the most likely to fall into patterns that open them up to those situations, he said.
“Absolutely, social media sets the stage for dangerous encounters,” Faris said. “I don’t envy the parents of teenagers these days. It’s very difficult to monitor.”
Easy to hide online life
A 2016 study from the Pew Research Center of parents of 13- to 17-year-olds found that about 40 percent had never looked at their teen’s social media profile or checked which websites their teen visited.
About 40 percent of parents frequently talked about appropriate behavior with sharing online, and just over one-third frequently talked about the online behavior toward others. More than three-quarters of the parents surveyed discussed those at least occasionally.
The ways teens communicate can make it difficult to monitor or control. On networks like Snapchat or Instagram, it’s easy to have more than one account, and accounts on web-based apps like Kik and Whatsapp are easily concealed from prying parental eyes.
Even without access to their personal devices, teenagers can get to their social media accounts. Users can log in on others’ devices, thwarting efforts to fully cut them off from the sites.
Parents have parallel ways of tracking. Location controls on phones or devices can instantly reveal their children’s locations, but the online comments and conversations are easier for kids to hide.
Technological monitoring, like parental controls or location-tracking, were less common than personal monitoring, according to the Pew study. Only 16 percent used tools to track locations on cell phones or to restrict cell phone use. Thirty-nine percent of parents reported using controls to block, filter or monitor other online activities in the survey, conducted in 2014 and 2015.
The pace at which technology changes makes it harder to keep up, as well. The proliferation of apps means parents have to constantly adapt if they’re trying to monitor them.
Irvin L. Barrett, who lives in Beaumont, said he regularly talks with and checks on his 17-year-old daughters’ posts, but said he tries not to control too much to earn her trust.
“I’ve had to keep the lines of communication open and not totally push her away by being too stringent or too strict in areas where there can be some leniency,” so that she trusts him and follows the rules on serious things like online privacy and who she’s talking to, he said. That means “periodically checking in, making sure she’s friends with people she’s familiar with, that no one is attempting to become too familiar, or asking to meet or for phone numbers or personal information that they have no right to know,” he said.
Faulkner said she and her husband had talked with Presley, 11, and Liam, 13, about what they were allowed to do online and who they should or shouldn’t talk to on apps or games, but until this summer, “we haven’t dug through their phones. We kept a close eye on it, but we haven’t been super strict, and I wish that we would have.”
But she looked at Presley’s phone over the summer and found she was reading online stories with inappropriate language, and that stories she wrote and posted online had thousands of views from people she certainly didn’t know in real life.
She noticed for weeks that she seemed to withdrawn and irritable, she said, and after looking through the device, confiscated it immediately. “It took me about 3 minutes to realize, oh, she just lost her phone forever,” she said. “I kicked myself more than anything, maybe I should have known better. Maybe I was just oblivious, it’s not going to be my kid,” she said. “This has been a huge eye-opener to us.”
Vigilance makes difference
“It’s difficult to impossible to monitor everything that’s going on,” Faris said.
But data shows it’s worth at least trying. A nationwide study of 13-year-olds that he worked on in 2015 found that parental involvement and engagement with social media and online activities helped the teens cope with negativity online.
Teenagers whose parents were monitoring their online use in some way, whether by following their accounts or having access to their passwords, were able to respond to negative events and cyber-aggressions better than those whose parents weren’t trying to be involved, he said.
“The data suggests that trying to keep on top of things, even if you fall short of perfection, is worth putting in the effort,” he said.
“It’s not necessarily a good thing to be spying on them, but my tendency would be to err on the side of caution,” he said. Put simply, “teenagers make terrible decisions all the time,” he said, so it’s better to monitor more than less.