There is no ignoring a headline of 3 child rapes being linked to social apps. Child rapists have successfully posed as teenagers on Skout and attacked children. It’s awful, it’s disgusting, it’s devastating, but demonizing social media is shortsighted.
Perhaps I am too literal, but I’m not entirely comfortable categorizing software application whose sole purpose is to bring strangers together as “social” media. It’s not just the semantics that trouble me, it’s that the category of social media or networking is far too large and vague now. (As technology grows, our language needs to keep up. It’s too tempting to make sweeping generalizations otherwise.) Skout, to my understanding, is an app that children over the age of 13 can legally use to find strangers. Why? What could possibly be the reason for such a thing? What corporate brain trust decided that the teen market was a must-have for this app? Were the decision makers reassigned from the Joe Camel ad campaign? Has the dream machine behind flavored vodkas and wine coolers moved on to software marketing? Have we really in fact allowed corporations to now actively lure children into talking to strangers?
What kind of teenager do we think would be interested in meeting strangers on-line? Would it be strong, stable children with solid social networks and adult relationships? I’m guessing not. Teenagers are nothing if not acutely socially aware. They know who’s in and who’s out at any given moment. The adolescent social world shuns strangers. It is likely that a teen would only seek out strangers if he/she felt alienated by the real social world or had a propensity towards risky behavior. So let’s make an app available for that!
I worry that this story will cause the villagers to take up arms. Not against Skout, which seriously needs a trip to the woodshed, but against the bogeyman of social networking. Should children have access to social networking sites (whose intention are to connect people to those they actually know?) I’m not sure it’s necessary, but then again I don’t think children need to sport fake sleeve tattoos, so I might not be the best judge. What would be wonderful is if the news of these attacks on children prompts family conversations. Strangers are people you do not know. The fact that a friend knows them doesn’t make them less strange. Someone you’ve heard of is not a friend (that’s why Beyonce isn’t returning your calls.) I would go so far as to suggest that an adult is not a friend either. An adult might be a teacher, coach, therapist, tutor or friend of a child’s parent, but not a friend of the child. But then again, I think putting a toddler in high heels, a sequin dress and fake fur jacket is a slippery slope.
It’s always tempting to blame an outside force, particularly a consumer product. In this case it actually is appropriate to enforce changes to the product. But let’s resist the urge to demonize everything we find unfamiliar. Let’s not run to blanket our airwaves with every child “expert” or media “expert” exposing catchy, yet utterly vague sound bites about children and social networking. Let’s do our best to remember that technology isn’t the issue, human beings are the problem. Child rapists by definition will seek out children. Our job is not to hide our children; our job is to pay attention to who they are and what they need. We need to know about their world and how they are living in it. Unless they actually paid for their phone and monthly bills (insert; ‘ha ha ha’) parents have every right/obligation to access the phone on a regular basis. A child who knows he/she is not living in a secret alternate world from their parents is more likely to make good decisions. Part of what we teach our children is how to live in the world not how to hide from it. There will always be dark and dangerous forces in the world. Strong children with well honed coping tools grow into resilient and successful adults.