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Death of middle school student puts focus on online dangers

Two Virginia Tech engineering students face charges in the death of a 13-year-old Blacksburg,Va., girl in a crime that seems to have begun with an online meeting.

David Eisenhauer, 18, has been charged with kidnapping and first-degree murder in the death of Nicole Madison Lovell, whose body was found Saturday in North Carolina, four days after she disappeared from her home. Another Virginia Tech student, Natalie Keepers, 19, faces charges of improper disposal of a body and accessory.

Nicole's mother told reporters police believe her daughter met Eisenhauer online on "some off-the-wall site I never heard of." On Wednesday, the middle school student apparently slipped out the window of her room, setting off a frantic search. Police have not yet released how the seventh grader died or the circumstances.

Nicole's mother reported her daughter, who survived a liver transplant and lymphoma as a little child, was bullied at school by classmates who commented on her weight and even her surgery scars.

The Washington Post has a heartbreaking account of the crime, which describes Nicole’s online search for affirmation.

The Post reports:

Nicole wrote frequently on Facebook with romantic updates about her search for young love. “First Kiss” she wrote on May 3, 2014. “They say that Disney World is the ‘Happiest Place on Earth’. Obviously they’ve never been in your arms,” she posted on July 28, 2015.

On Jan. 1 at 3:35 a.m., Nicole posted a short message to a Facebook group called “Teen Dating and Flirting.” Captioned on a close-up selfie, the white flash of her cellphone camera illuminating her cheeks, she wrote: “Cute or nah.” The message received 304 replies. Many of the comments were spiteful, not unlike the kind of bullying that is pervasive on social media. “You’re very round,” one person wrote. “And no not cute,” another commented.

Years ago, a middle school pal of my daughter’s posted a photo of herself on Facebook with the question “Am I pretty?”  I warned her it was unrealistic to expect 13-year-old boys to respond to such vulnerability with delicacy and savoir-faire rather than with, "No, you're ugly." And that's the sort of rude response she got, prompting discussions in my household about limiting Facebook questions to "How 'bout them Braves?"

But when teens ceded Facebook to their parents, they moved to sites and apps where they could post photos and comments without Aunt Susie seeing them and where often anonymous peers could offer instant and biting critiques. There's always been a cottage industry of parenting books about the secret lives of teenagers. The migration of kids to social media has increased the secrets.

Not surprisingly, a new study of mothers and stress by Arizona State University researchers Suniya Luthar and Lucia Cicolla found the highest levels of stress and depression are now found in moms whose kids are 12 to 14.

In a release about the study, the authors explain the challenges moms face with adolescents:

"Several factors come together in a perfect storm, Luthar said. "One, the kids are dealing with puberty and all that this implies -- hormones, acne and changing bodies. Two, they are drawn toward experimenting with alcohol, drugs or sex."

"They are also coping with transition to a relatively impersonal school environment, with large buildings and different teachers for each class, as opposed to the relative safety of smaller elementary schools with the same teacher all year. Their academic performance is now evaluated in a much more public way than before, as are their extracurricular talents," she added. "Finally, as they strive to separate from their parents, the peer group takes on enormous significance; early adolescents are very invested in 'being popular,' desperately wanting to fit in and be admired by their peers. That is a lot to deal with simultaneously."

I am not sure schools can sort this out for us. As a culture, we're just figuring our way on social media, and there will likely be dissertations about how we got it all wrong with kids. I am beginning to have more and more admiration for parents who refuse to give their young teens computers and smartphones and monitor all social media activity when they finally do.

What say the rest of you?

The Washington Post just posted a piece about the online world of young kids with some strong advice about monitoring. Take a look.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.