Wednesday, August 1, 2007

"She's my friend!"

KANSAS CITY, Missouri — Two teenagers kidnapped a pregnant woman they met online and took her to a motel in an effort to take her baby, authorities said. The plan was foiled when one of the teens got scared and called police. (full story here)

Everything about this news story should deeply disturb you, as a parent and as a parent online. While I am certainly not one of those who assume everyone you meet online is a lunatic with desperately evil motives to kill you, the facts that law enforcement officials can provide for you (stories that never make it to the national news) should be enough to cause you to sit up and take notice. Like this latest news item.

Assuming you've already familiarized yourself with this story, there are a few things that stood out to me:

1. The ages of the teenagers charged. Is it just me, or does it touch something deep inside your heart that it appears violent crimes are being committed by younger people, all the time? At just 18 and 19 years old, these 2 girls had it in their minds to brutally assault a pregnant woman and steal her baby. Think about that for a few minutes. They did, and they knew what they were going to have to do, to physically get ahold of that baby - and they were prepared to do it.

2. The relationship these girls had with one another via their online meeting. The article doesn't say how long these girls knew each other, but it's not at all uncommon for young people to connect with others online and instantly think they're "friends". After a few chat/IM sessions or email exchanges where they find they like all the same music, movies, and various other shared interests, suddenly "this is my friend". Newsflash: NO, they're not. You don't know this person from the stranger you pass in the grocery store. Friendship goes a lot deeper than a shared interest in entertainment options, fashion and places to hang out. I don't know why young people are so eager to call complete strangers friends, but they are. The pregnant teen in this case found out the hard way that those she most likely assumed were "friends" were nothing of the kind.

3. The fact that the pregnant teenager trusted these girls enough to get into a car with them, where the assault began. Can you even imagine what must have been going through this poor girl's mind? She had to have been absolutely terrified. I can only guess that she felt comfortable enough to get in the car with them because of the friendship she thought she had with them via their online conversations. She was so wrong, and so is anyone else that would be so naive to automatically assume a genuine friendship with people they meet online. While indeed it is true that genuine, lifelong friendships can be made with folks you first meet online, those relationships come after a good deal of time is invested getting to actually know the person - not after a few weeks of having their name on your Top Friends application on Facebook (for example), or chatting with them in IM a few times.

We live in a much different world now, than when I was the age of the girls in this story. When I was 18, friends you trusted were people you knew face to face. You knew where they lived, you knew who their parents were, where they worked or went to school or church. You knew other people that also knew them face to face, and they were genuine friendships. You actually knew them, through good times and bad times, even sometimes after heated disagreements with them and making up, you knew them. You knew what they were like when they were happy, sad, irritated or lonely. You knew them the way you actually know a friend.

Fast forward to 2007 and "friends" are suddenly people with bizarre screen names and carefully worded personal profiles. You know as much about them as they want you to know, and how much of that is even true, is anyone's guess. We all know that the anonymity of the internet provides us the opportunity to be pretty much whoever we want people to think we are. Whether your new online "friend" is being honest about themselves, is impossible to say. You have no idea what their family is like, how they react when they get mad, where they go, what they do, or who else knows them and/or what their reputation/character is in their local community. Essentially, you know nothing about them except what they want you to know. For those who are dishonest (and there are plenty of them), you've made a "friend" with a fraud.

I have friends that I know online, that I am confident (through actually getting to know them) they are who and what they say they are. Some I've met offline (like the one coming over tomorrow) many times, some I've met just once. Meeting "online friends" offline should always be in a public place, and shouldn't happen at all until after you've actually invested the time to really get to know them as much as possible via the online medium.

It's a nutty, mixed up, sin sick world we live in. We need to be smart, and we need to be careful, and we need to make sure our kids & teenagers (you know, those people that think they're invincible and that horrible things can't happen to them - yeah - those people) are just as smart and careful.