By Lisa Barr
I attribute three personal incidents that shaped me into the (Way) Over-Protective Mom of Teenage Girls that I am today.
When I was 15 years old, I was approached by a "fashion" photographer to take "pictures." He said I could make a lot of money -- and told me all those things that a teenage girl wants to hear. I said no because he creeped me out. He was, I later understood, trying to lure me into porn. My instincts somehow knew that this guy was not "safe" and to stay away. But it scared me long after the incident. I had many bad dreams related to that guy throughout my teenage years. I was always afraid he would turn up somehow when I least expected it ...
At 17 years old, I received a scholarship to serve in the Illinois State Senate as an intern, second semester senior year of high school. Within two months of arriving to Springfield, I was asked to help break a teenage porn ring. Working with the police and a member of the State Senate, I was used as a "pawn" and did my small part in helping to insure that the sickos who were photographing kids for porn were caught.
When I was a reporter in Israel in my late 20s, my aerobics instructor who lived a few blocks away from me in Jerusalem had a beautiful 15-year-old daughter. One day while walking home from school, the girl was abducted, raped and murdered.
I was deeply affected.
I am now a Mom in my '40s, and that "fear" has never waned. I am, admittedly, by all accounts, too overprotective. To this day I do not drop my girls off at someone's house, or even at school, without seeing them actually walk inside the door. I make them text me when they arrive somewhere, and if they are taking off somewhere else, they need to let me know, or their phone becomes mine. I really wish I did not feel this way, but my internal compass persistently worries.
And now as parents we all have The New-Age Worry, which takes the form of Social Networking. It's no secret that the biggest Pedophile Playground is the Internet. And believe me, like most of you, I am so on it. I've had The Talks about safety, responsibility, respecting yourself, Preying Pedophiles, and how one stupid photo of yourself can haunt your life forever -- particularly the "Girls Gone Wild" Shot -- aka: The Boob Flash.
That 'Flash' can, as we all know, spiral out of control. Once it's out of your hands, as the Parental Mantra goes, it's no longer yours.
"Mommy," my 13 year old approached me this past weekend, "you need to see this YouTube video. It is so sad. A girl flashed her breasts, and then all these bad things happened to her after ... she cut herself, got into drugs, was bullied and abused, and some weird guy kept following her on Facebook and would not stop, and she made a video about her life. She was so alone, Mommy -- and then she killed herself."
I looked at my daughter and my mouth fell open. She just described every fear of mine in the book. I wanted to hug her so close to me and not let her go. But she wanted to "educate" me. So instead, I followed her to the computer, and said, "Show me."
We watched the stark, grainy, beyond powerful video of Amanda Todd together.
For those who haven't seen it, Amanda Todd, a 15-year-old Vancouver-area teenager, was bullied both on-line and off and was found dead a week ago, in an apparent suicide. She had made a home video recounting "her story" one month earlier. It was clearly a foreshadowing of the inevitable.
She holds up white flashcards, and on each card she tells one line of her story. Each card is hand-written, complete with grammatical errors. Her painful story is revealed clinically and raw ... her tragedy, she writes, began with The Flash.
Amanda, then a 7th-grader, flashed her breasts to someone she did not know in a "Chat" setting. Little did she know that the Stranger she "trusted" took a picture of her in that moment. A year later, he found her on Facebook and blackmailed her that if she didn't "put on a show" for him, he would send the picture to "everyone." The frightening part was the Stranger seemed to know everyone and everything about her -- her address, her friends, her family members. And when Amanda tried to ignore him -- the Stranger got his revenge. He released the photo ... and as you can imagine, it viral-ed, from there.
Amanda's "shame" sent her into a downward spiral. Anxiety, depression, drugs, alchohol, and cutting. The once beautiful, vivacious girl was running from her own life, and this relentless Stranger kept following her -- even after she had switched schools in a fruitless effort to start over. To add to this, kids found out about her photo, and bullied her, calling her online "slut, garbage ... etc." The Stranger kept his game going and even created a profile for himself using Amanda's topless photo as HIS profile picture. Kids stepped up the bullying, tormenting her at school, even beating her up, and she was found lying in a ditch by her father. The abuse, online and off, was all too much for the teenager to bear. She tried to commit suicide by swallowing bleach, but was saved in a hospital. Her tormentors from school were relentless, calling for her death all over Facebook. Amanda tells her story in silence, letting each note card speak her truth.
Watching this tragedy unfold, as a parent, you just know where this girl is headed. I cried, at the card that read: I am so alone.
Amanda did get help. But it wasn't enough. Police did come into the picture. But not soon enough. Her parents did try to help her by changing schools, but Facebook was faster.
And here we are today, one dead girl with a wakeup call to all of us: One wrong move on Cyberspace can kill you.
When we were kids, we made so many dumb mistakes -- all part of growing up. But now, kids' mistakes are publicized -- a lesson is not simply learned; rather a lesson becomes life-changing, life-following, and in extreme cases, life-destroying.
It's up to us, as parents, to step in. We can't bring Amanda back. But show your kids, if they haven't already seen it already, her message. She speaks their language. If you have daughters -- middle schoolers -- teenagers -- make them watch this. If you have sons, make them watch this. If you have pull in YOUR school, start pulling -- and get this video shown and discussed.
Speak to your kids NOW in straight terms about Facebook predators who are experts at manipulating young girls, with words that they want to hear -- You're so pretty. You should model. You have such a great body ... Discuss in hard terms the ramifications of Luring and Lying. Don't hold back.
Talk to your boys about the responsibility they have if a topless shot of a girl comes their way. And don't be naive, they do. Show them consequences. Tell your son to imagine what if that girl was his sister or his cousin ... explain what his role in spreading that photo might do to that girl's life.
It's tough talk, I know. But tough times demand it.
The Internet is bigger, faster, smarter, than we are. But what it does not have that we do is the Human Touch. What it does not have is reminders to our kids, that no matter what is Out There, we, Your Parents, are a safe place.
We teach our preschoolers about Stranger Danger. What lurks in dark places on the Internet IS Stranger Danger: The Sequel. Teach it.
It's too late for Amanda Todd. But in her death, she gave us an education of what can happen... She gave us a gift: Open it, share it, remember her message.
Lisa Barr is the editor of GIRLilla Warfare: A Mom's Guide to Surviving the Suburban Jungle (www.girlillawarfare.com) and the author of FUGITIVE COLORS (available on Amazon).