A family in our community experienced the unthinkable last fall.
Braden Markus was a happy and healthy young athlete – 15 years old with his whole life ahead of him. The Olentangy tenth grader had a family who loved him, played multiple sports, had lots of friends and was beloved by his community.
When Braden shockingly lost his life to suicide, his grieving family was left with so many questions. His mom, Jennifer, has fought hard to get answers; she has also shared openly on Facebook in order to help other families and prevent further tragedies.
It took almost a year to get the answers she so desperately needed – and those answers brought their own share of heartbreak.
Braden’s family now knows that on the day of his death, the 15-year-old was targeted by an online predator posing as a high school girl. This predator skillfully manipulated Braden into sharing photos, then threatened and attempted to blackmail him for a large sum of money. Braden, clearly terrified, panicked and tried to escape the predator’s trap in the only way he could think of.
This type of predatory trap is happening all the time to our kids on social media. Braden was targeted on Instagram; similar targeting has happened to other local kids on Snapchat.
While there is no way to keep our kids from possibly interacting with online predators, as they can be anywhere and everywhere, we CAN teach our kids how to handle things if they are targeted:
- Teach kids that strangers they meet online may pretend to be peers – and may be very convincing, even sharing pics or videos that look like someone their age – but they may still be PREDATORS. Even a “friend of a friend” is still a stranger if you and your friend only know them online and not in real life.
- Explain to kids that ANYONE asking for a nude pic or video should be immediately assumed to be a predator and blocked immediately! For anyone under 18, sharing nudes and related content is considered child porn and therefore an illegal activity punishable by law. No friend or classmate should ever do this; block them if they do. If a stranger does this, they are likely a predator trying to trick, trap and blackmail you.
- Perhaps most important, kids should be reminded – daily if necessary – that they can come to us with ANYTHING! We can help them with any problem, no matter how big or seemingly disastrous. We have their backs. We won’t judge, blame or punish them, even if they have shared images or gotten tricked or trapped by a predator. We will help them to get free.
- The best way for kids to stay safe from this type of predator is to NEVER share sexy or nude photos, texts or videos. Sharing this content is against the law and can get teens in a lot of trouble, as well as possibly get them caught in a predator’s blackmail trap. No matter who asks, it is always wrong to send nudes and sexually explicit material!
It is so easy to see how and why these predators are successful in exploiting young people. All our kids want to seem older than they are and feel desirable and hot; everyone likes compliments from a seemingly attractive stranger who shows interest in them. Then, once they are hooked, the predator uses skill and manipulation to slam the trap shut on the child.
Teens’ young, undeveloped brains can catastrophize and fear the worst when trapped by a predator. They can choose the unthinkable in order to escape a terrible trap and “protect” their family. Braden Markus is not the only child who has been tricked and trapped this way.
My heart and prayers go out to the Markus family. This should never have happened to Braden. His mother is a saint for sharing all the heartbreaking details of what happened to her sweet son so that others can learn and hopefully prevent this from happening to any more kids.
If you don’t think this can happen to your child, trust me when I say if it absolutely could. Some very tough conversations need to be had with our kids, and they need to happen early and often.
Parents, get your child’s passwords – to their device and all social media apps – for their own safety. Routinely check their social media and texting apps, especially their sent and received private messages (on Snapchat, this is not possible as they disappear).
Also, have them go through their “friends” lists with you on all their social media apps and explain how they know each person. Delete and block all strangers. Do this gently and lovingly, ideally together with your child – and explain why it’s important.
In addition, do spot checks of the photos and videos on your child’s phone. Check their deleted photos and videos. You’re not being nosy or invading privacy; you are trying to keep them safe and alive. If you don’t know how to do these things, then learn. And yes, your child will fight this process every step of the way. Remind them that you love them and want to help keep them safe!
Privacy is so important at this age, but it can also be so devastatingly dangerous.
Parents have a very tough choice – either keep kids off social media, which is next to impossible because of the societal and peer pressure to be there. OR, if you allow your kids access, then you must try to manage and monitor it as best you can. Our kids will continually try to find ways to have private chats while we continually try to monitor, guide and teach.
If you believe your child may have been targeted by an online predator, visit the CyberTipline from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children or call (800) 843-5678 to report crimes against children, including online enticement of children for sexual acts, obscene material sent to a child, and child pornography.
It’s the Wild Wild West out there and criminals are constantly finding new ways to exploit technology and our children. Our tweens and teens may want to act and dress older than they are but in reality, they are younglings with undeveloped brains and tender hearts.
It’s on us to protect them – sometimes even from themselves.