I have to preface this post by saying that I do not, in any way, mean any disrespect to the parents of Michelle Miller, a 17 year-old girl in my community who was murdered over the weekend. As the mother of a 16 year-old girl, my heart goes out to them and I cannot fathom the grief they must be enduring right now. I’m writing this post in hopes of bringing to light information that could potentially save other teen girls from harm, not as linkbait or anything else.
As I’ve written before, there is a dangerous disconnect between teens actively using social media and their parents not getting social media and, therefore, not being able to guide them in terms of what’s ok and what’s not ok. This is new territory for parents–I get that–and the platforms teens use change constantly. I get that it’s easy for me to give this advice as a person who gets paid to stay on top of trends and technologies, and to therefore be in a position to (hopefully) provide at least rudimentary guidance to my kids and to encourage them to spread the word to their friends about why it’s not a good idea to tweet photos of pot or alcohol or nudity (yes, I’ve seen all of these tweeted by local teens–publicly).
But here is the case of a 17 year-old girl–an honors student and varsity athlete, no less– who was apparently romantically involved with a married 31 year-old man. In a Washington Post article about this case, I noticed that they included a few tweets about the tragedy–one of which linked to Michelle Miller’s Twitter account. Out of curiosity, I looked at her tweets and it struck me that, while hindsight is 20/20, she was sure tweeting a lot of stuff that should have raised red flags to her parents. Tweets like, on Sunday, the day she was killed apparently intervening on a suicide attempt by Adam Arndt, the 31 year-old Army recruiter with whom she apparently had a romantic relationship, “It’s really upsetting that you don’t know how much I love you.” Tragic, in hindsight. And other tweets: “He fucks like infantry” and “I miss my christian gray” and “I met a bunch of older men who bought me cool things” and “Am I driving drunk this morning?” –those wouldn’t raise any alarm bells for you, the parent of a teenage girl–an honor student, a varsity athlete and someone who planned on enlisting in the Army in a few months? This would look ok to colleges or potential employers or the military?
THIS IS WHY YOU NEED TO PAY ATTENTION TO SOCIAL MEDIA IF YOU HAVE A TEEN-AGED CHILD. The stuff teens say and do on Twitter and Instagram and Tumblr and the next new platforms that come after these…that stuff is out there, in public, and part of your kid’s permanent record. My kids talk about it all the time–how kids are bullying other kids on Twitter, getting suspended for things they said about a teacher on Twitter, tweeting or instagramming drug or alcohol photos…all on public platforms. Yes, teens are going to be teens and do stuff we say not to do and be sneaky–but we, as parents, at least need to educate them about the potential pitfalls and dangers of something they apparently think nothing of because if we don’t, who will? School? They aren’t. Other teens? They’re doing it too. I see parents obsessing over every other aspect of their kids’ lives and resumes: pouring time and money into sports programs, tutors, therapists, you name it–nothing is too much when it comes to optimizing kids’ future opportunities like college. Yet we’re ok letting those same honor students and athletes swear like sailors and talk drugs and alcohol on Twitter? How is it that parents are not getting that colleges and the military and future employers–they’re all going to be looking at your kids’ online activities just the same way they’ll be looking at transcripts and honors and admission essays? Not to mention in the cases of horrible tragedies like this one–or in the case of rape or other crimes against young women–the reality is that in our society, the victims almost always get blamed for violent crimes perpetrated against them. Posting suggestive photos or tweets are just another way that police and lawyers and judges will say that innocent victims “asked for it” or somehow invited harm on themselves.
I know we can’t predict our kids’ every action or protect them from evil in the world…but we can do our best to educate them about the way they present themselves online and, the same way we rifle through their drawers or scroll through their texts to make sure that they’re not doing stupid things that may get them into trouble, we can pay attention to what they post online and intervene if we see things that alarm or disturb us. Yes, social media is a time-suck and it’s hard to keep up with all the platforms and changing technologies. But parenting is hard and takes hard work–the reality is that social media is now part of that work, and we don’t have the option of remaining ignorant about our kids online activities–we owe it to them to have their backs there the same way we try to have their backs “in real life.”