Last week the body of Nicole Madison Lovell, a 13-year-old girl from Blacksburg, Virginia, was discovered near the Virginia–North Carolina state line. Police have since arrested two engineering students at nearby Virginia Tech, David Eisenhauer, 18, and Natalie M. Keepers, 19, for the murder. Lovell’s mother told police that she believes Eisenhauer met Lovell through social media, and Lovell’s eight-year-old neighbors say that she showed them texts she had exchanged, using the mobile instant-messaging app Kik, with an 18-year-old about plans for an evening meeting hours before she disappeared.
According to news reports, Lovell had a disturbing history with social media. Friends and family say she was bullied in person and online, and at the beginning of the year she posted a short message on a Facebook group named “Teen Dating and Flirting,” asking members whether she was “Cute or nah.” Over 300 people commented, and, as to be expected, not all were positive. (The post appears to have been taken down.) A quick tour of “Teen Dating and Flirting” reveals that the group is not limited to teens. I quickly found a number of adult men; there was one guy who graduated in 1990 who told a teenage girl that she had a “nice ass” and a gray-haired man requesting cleavage shots. According to the Facebook page Justice for Children Without Voices, Facebook is shutting down “Teen Dating and Flirting” in response to Lovell’s murder.
While we don’t yet know what motivated Eisenhauer and Keepers to possibly kill Lovell, we do know that social media played a role. In a story in today’s New York Times, Jenn Burleson Mackay, an associate professor at Virginia Tech who teaches social media use, told the paper her her “first thought is that this kid was really too young to have been using Facebook.” “To be looking for boyfriends and dating advice on Facebook at age 13 just seems inappropriate,” she added.
But a 2015 PEW report found that most 13- to 17-year-olds have positive experiences on social media. The majority said they use social media for flirting, and that social media makes them feel more connected to their significant others. That said, one-quarter of all teens (35 percent of girls and 16 percent of boys) have unfriended or blocked someone who was flirting in a way that made them uncomfortable, and 22 percent of teens say they had a partner who used the Internet or a cell phone to insult them.
“Why wouldn’t she look for boys on Facebook?” asks Rena Bivens, assistant professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University. “It’s easy to demonize technology in these situations, but if you are a teenager looking for a romantic partner and advice on dating and sex, you are going to where it’s available. The biggest threat here is not social media itself, but the anonymity.” Bivens says that it’s easy to put the blame on social media in part because it provides us with a record of events that real life does not.
Robert Faris, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Davis, agrees that it is perfectly normal for 13-year-olds—57 percent of whom are on Facebook—to seek romance online, though it’s not without its risks. In “Being Thirteen: Social Media and the Hidden World of Young Adolescents’ Peer Culture,” Faris and Marion Underwood analyzed the social media activity of over 200 13-year-olds and their parents from six states from September 2014 to April 2015. They found that for many teens, social media is a mostly positive experience, but it can amplify or exacerbate pre-existing insecurities.
“Social media creates an almost addictive need for affirmation,” Faris says. “We’ve got both qualitative and quantitative data on that. When teenagers aren’t getting enough of it, they will go and seek it wherever they can find it.”
While there haven’t been studies linking rising social media use to an increase in pedophilila or sexual violence against teenagers, Faris said we shouldn’t ignore how much easier it makes it for “men with pedophilic interest to find children.”
There are a number of things concerned parents can do make sure their children don’t end up in the more dangerous pockets of social media, including banning devices at night, only allowing them to use social media in their company, or sharing passwords with their kids. Overall, though, Faris says, “What really matters is that kids feel like parents are actively concerned about them, that they are trying and open to dialogue. This is what makes the biggest difference.”