Pimps, Social Networks, and Education: Oh My.

Sometimes, I get to spend most of my day at home. Today became one of those days when mother nature decided to dump much snow on my little corner of the earth. This was our backyard this morning:

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Isn’t it so pretty? (note: I only think it’s pretty when I get to sit inside and hide from it).

On these days that I get to spend at home, staring out the window and thinking about how lucky I am that I can sit and write all day, I make lunch for myself. And one of my favorite things to do when I eat said lunch is to read the headlines and click around on CNN.com. It makes me feel like I’m aware of things that are going on in the world, even if only for the brief moments when I am eating my amazing homemade lunch (today: udon noodle soup in homemade turkey broth. yum.)

One of today’s headlines, front and center on CNN’s main page:

Pimps hit social networks to recruit underage sex workers!

Alright, yes, I added the exclamation point for rhetorical effect. But it was a pretty shocking headline. Given my recent complaint about tech fear run rampant in the media, I had to read the article. Would it be yet another manifesto on the evils of social media? I had to find out.

The piece chronicles a problem that is evidently rampant on social networking sites in which pimps are finding 15-and-up girls to traffic to men. These pimps attract young women with alluring (grammatically twitch-inducing) messages like this:

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…and girls are falling for it. The author gives the example of one girl whose mother had been recently arrested for “financial crimes.” Apparently, this girl’s “deteriorating family life left her with a sense of desperation. She was smitten, and willing to do anything for the man she thought loved her. So she stayed.”

My tone so far might suggest that I’m poking fun at girls like “Nina” here, who fall for men like “Rain” (seriously? and that’s the actual name he used!) because they are looking for father figures or are trying to right some sort of horrendous wrong that has happened in their lives. This is not my intention. I do, however, mean to point out the ludicrousness of situations like this, situations that I think could be in some way remedied by teaching today’s students how to be critical users of online spaces like Facebook or Twitter, which are apparently two of the prime sites for these pimps’ recruiting operations.

Would these girls have fallen into similar destructive situations without the help of social media? Without the intervention of adults (often teachers) who pay attention and care about them, it seems likely. Teens who are this desperate for love and affection will often find ways to get it, even if those ways are as tragic and as horrifying as selling themselves or obeying the orders of some jerk named “Rain.” This article actually didn’t annoy me as much as some of the ones I noted in my previous post, mostly because the author takes the time to point out that the use of social media is really an old trick using new tools, and that web companies like Facebook “take human trafficking very seriously” (…uh, I should hope so?!) and have instituted means to detect it and shut it down. In other words, the article isn’t solely blaming social media for the ills in our society, but actually seems to suggest we might be responsible for some of our own nonsense (novel, eh?).

What I detect in news stories like this, though, is an undercurrent of fear in our society about social media corrupting the innocence of children. I mentioned recently that I’m reading Nancy Baym’s book, Personal Connections in the Digital Age. In it, Baym notes that one of the common discourses in the early take-up of new technologies is one of moral panic,  or fears that “form in dystopian rhetorics” and “can lead to important policy decisions at personal, household, governmental, and design levels” (41). Such rhetorics, Baym argues, “often focus on the well-being of children, and especially on the well-being of teenage girls (my emphasis). 

My concern is that stories like this do lead to policies that could potentially be counter-productive to curbing situations like this, where young girls are targeted and taken advantage of by online predators. I see this in multiple schools where certain social media sites are banned or blocked by the school’s servers, or where teachers are discouraged from using social media in their work with students for fear of somehow damaging authoritative relationships with students. Concerns I understand, but feel are counter-productive to the instruction of digital literacies.

In case you’re wondering what these media outlets want us to do to protect children, the piece links to the FBI’s tip sheet for protecting kids from these online predators.

I have news for the FBI: this list is kind of unrealistic for the parents (or teachers) of teenagers. Here are a few of my favorite bits of advice from our friends down at the Federal Bureau of Investigation:

  • Monitor your children’s use of the Internet; keep your Internet computer in an open, common room of the house.
  • Only allow your kids to post photos or any type of personally identifying information on websites with your knowledge and consent.
  • Make it a rule with your kids that they can never give out personal information or meet anyone in person without your prior knowledge and consent. If you agree to a meeting between your child and someone they met online, talk to the parents/guardians of the other individual first and accompany your kids to the meeting in a public place.
  • Check your kids’ profiles and what they post online.
  • Don’t forget cell phones! They often have almost all the functionality of a computer.

No — none of these are “bad” things to do. Heck, if you can manage to accomplish all of these things as a parent, I applaud you. Have you met a teenager? The whole “your knowledge and consent” thing tends to go against the standard operating procedure of most teenagers. Furthermore, I tutor teenagers who have their own computers and smartphones and who are perfectly responsible digital citizens. Having a single family computer in a communal area of the house worked when I was a kid and needed to type a grand total of one paper per semester — it’s completely unrealistic today, when students have their own tablets and laptops and in many cases need them to do their schoolwork. Keeping an eye on every single one of your child’s accounts and profiles, requiring access to your child’s devices and accounts, and constantly checking everything your kid posts online is becoming less realistic for today’s parents. And, I would argue, it’s not entirely necessary.

Instead, how about paying attention to the few nuggets of advice the FBI gives us that are actually worth listening to:

  • Instruct your kids to use privacy settings to restrict access to profiles so only the individuals on their contact lists are able to view their profiles.
  • Educate yourself on the websites, software, and apps that your child uses.
  • Visit social networking websites with your kids, and exchange ideas about acceptable versus potentially risky websites.
  • Encourage your kids to consider whether a message is harmful, dangerous, hurtful, or rude before posting or sending it online, and teach your kids not to respond to any rude or harassing remarks or messages that make them feel scared, uncomfortable, or confused and to show you the messages instead.

When it comes down to it, we don’t need to police kids’ uses of the Internet. While some supervision is certainly necessary, especially as kids are just beginning to spread their digital wings (so to speak), 24-7 policing of kids’ digital activities is downright unrealistic, if not impossible. And this approach definitely would not have helped “Nina,” whose Mom was in jail when Nina got recruited for prostitution.

Instead, maybe it’s time digital awareness became part of the curriculum at school and part of the conversation at home. As the CNN article states, throwing one’s hands up and saying they “don’t know how” to use the tech our kids are using is no longer an acceptable excuse. We live in a digital world, folks, and just like in an analog world, the tools we have can be put to horrifying uses when we don’t help kids learn how to integrate them into their lives in smart and responsible ways.

Am I worried about pimps online? Not as worried as I am that we’re not teaching these young teenage women, and their male counterparts, how to be good digital citizens.