How your child will be kidnapped

April 14, 2013 § 7 Comments

When I was a child, at the time I was old enough to wait at a bus stop or walk to a friend’s house, my parents taught my brother and me about “stranger danger,” about the creepy and ill-fitting figure who lingers or leers. There are wicked people, said my parents, and they will try to hurt you. If an unrecognized adult stops his car near you, remain alert. If he asks questions, don’t engage. If he comes after you, yell. And run.

The evil to be avoided was kidnapping, a word which, even as a child, carried terrifying associations, much the way hearing “9/11” chills me now. Of course, kidnapping of the kind my parents warned about remains a worry, but that is not the sole version of this nightmare. As we know from television shows like Dateline NBC’s “To catch a predator,” it is now possible to speak of virtual kidnappings, Internet-based abductions that can result in severe harm.

But there is one kind of virtual kidnapping that hasn’t gained much attention. It doesn’t involve any direct human contact; it doesn’t involve any dramatic arrest captured on camera. It’s not physical theft; it is soul theft. It is the trauma to a child’s psychology, self-image and worldview that comes from browsing the Internet. It is the result of roaming online unsupervised, without warnings about whom to run from or avoid.

What do I mean? Consider a conversation I once had with a student, whom I’ll call Cindy.

One day after school, Cindy casually related that through YouTube she had discovered a Finnish rock group called HIM. This was her favorite band, and as she talked about the group she smiled and said she longed to meet its members. She even began learning the Finnish language.

I was intrigued, so I did some research. I found out that HIM is short for “His Infernal Majesty.” Initially I brushed it off, but later I got to thinking and grew worried. Alarmed by the name, I searched more and discovered the group had released albums titled 666 Ways to Love and Greatest Love Songs: Vol. 666. Some of the group’s popular songs include “Join me in death” and “Gone with the sin,” the latter of which contains the lyric, “I just love the way you’re running out of life.”

Cindy’s case reveals what’s at stake in this world of virtual kidnapping. HIM did not cause any bleeding or bruising. Cindy was not taken from her home. But the band and its music had breached her inner life. Emotionally and psychologically, she was now under the influence of a group that sang of death and used numbers associated with the devil. How far would that influence go? How would HIM’s videos and lyrics continue to impact her? Of course, we can never know. And that’s part of the terror: the long-term consequences elude our capture.

Cindy’s case is just one example of the ways the Internet infiltrates teenage lives. For one young person it might start with a musician, for another it might be a chat room. All it takes is a little charisma and a little edginess, and literally overnight someone entirely unknown, someone who might live an ocean away, someone carrying a host of strange perversions or fascinations, now has the power of intimacy, the power, through the web, to come right into your family’s living room, or right into your child’s bedroom, at any hour of the day, unceasing. It sounds creepy: and it is.

These persons, however, are not always unknown. Sometimes they are brazenly, shockingly open. The New York Times, in an article titled “The Woman With a Billion Clicks,” recently profiled a 26-year-old who goes by the name “Jenna Marbles.” I had never heard of her, but I might be the last person who has never heard of her. Her YouTube channel receives over 1,000,000 hits a day and, in total, her channel has received over 1,000,000,000 — yes, a billion — views.

Her last name is actually Mourey, but for business purposes she uses Marbles, which is the name of her Chihuahua. She is in that hybrid, unclassifiable category known as “YouTube sensation.” According to the Times article, “Her videos are a highly shareable cocktail of comedy, sex appeal, puppies and social commentary, laced with profanity.” She does impersonations, she rants, she offers meandering asides about inconsequential things. And her video titles are perhaps most charming of all. They include names like “What your drunk name is,” “People that need to pipe the [f—] down,” “Sluts on Halloween,” and the lovely “My neighbor is a bitch.”

All this has led to extraordinary sway over the population that is most vulnerable. According to the Times, “Teenage girls love her exactly because she seems so genuine. Her videos are catnip to them, the kind of thing they discover privately” — and what a telling word that is — “in their Facebook feed, where her profanity and tell-it-like-it-is rants on sex, boys, sports bras and makeup speak directly to her core audience, 75 percent of whom are young women and girls, mostly from the ages of 13 to 17.”

And they are devoted. When a parent complained that Mourey’s videos were inappropriate, the Times said the “comment thread was swarmed by teenagers defending Jenna.” One fan wrote: ” ‘Seriously, I’m 13. You need to understand that we watch Jenna Marbles, we swear, we think wrong, we act insane, we have Facebooks, we can’t live without Internet, we can’t live without our phones. THAT’S JUST THE WAY IT IS!!’ ”

Just the way it is. A 13-year-old talking like that, thinking that, embracing that? Imagine if this was your child. What would you think? What was this girl like before Mourey, or before the gateway web sites or Google searching that hyperlinked her into Mourey’s cheap and tasteless lair?

The cumulative effect of Marbles and other aspiring vulgarians is obvious. The trashy images, the obscene language, the sexualized and faux-liberated personas that flash across “feeds” and search results: it all amounts to a program of anti-parenting. It breaks down and re-forms what children value, what they long for, what they consider to be true and beautiful. In the comments of the 13-year-old, something is searingly clear: Innocence and purity are destroyed.

It is, in short, abduction, truly a leading away. It is not a physical removal, but it doesn’t have to be. It is the kidnapping of their soul.

In the face of these threats, parents remain the first line of defense. And although many parents are outstanding, loving their children into something more noble than the offerings of Jenna Marbles, too many are unaware or unresponsive. More parents must embrace the word “no” and refuse to give children unrestricted access to the Internet. Parents must also take more care to find out what their children and teens look at online. They need to learn about “cookies” and apps and browsing histories. They must track Facebook and Twitter accounts and, if necessary, delete them altogether. All it takes is one link, one video, and a child can be hooked. Parents must check text messages and friend lists in the same way parents once checked bedrooms to see what might be stashed in the closet.

Moreover, we must expand accountability, creating a kind of neighborhood block watch for the Internet. We must protect not only our own children but, to the extent possible, those of others. We can’t let them browse in isolation, removed from the watchfulness of wiser eyes. When a young mind wanders aimlessly with an Internet-enabled device, it is morally unacceptable to turn the other way.

Finally, we must educate. We must explain that the human being possesses an incomparable dignity, and that this dignity requires a constant safeguarding. We must explain to children that although the Internet can enlighten and connect, it can also torment and corrupt. Students should go online like they walk into a big city: appreciating its benefits but respectful of how quickly things can go wrong, aware of the alleyways and dark corners. They must know about the “strangers” that hide in search results, links, and downloads. They must know how to browse and what to avoid and when to call for help.

Of course, we can’t be everywhere, and this new vigilance requires an increase in time and attention. But we have no choice. This is one of the urgent issues of our times, as vital as the education we give about sex and drugs and guns. Failure to act can have the worst of consequences: the loss of a child, forever, and a culture that responds, “That’s just the way it is.”

Posted by Matt Emerson.


“The Woman with a Billion Clicks” (from the New York Times)


§ 7 Responses to How your child will be kidnapped

  • Kim McNulty says:

    Powerful and well written. Thank you!

  • […] How Your Child Will Be Kidnapped Matt Emerson, Ignatian Educator […]

  • […] How Your Child Will Be Kidnapped Matt Emerson, Ignatian Educator […]

  • Stefanie says:

    Through a tragic series of circumstances in our local community, a reporter actually published — with links to their accounts — the social media (Twitter) public accounts to many of the teens in our community. It was supposed to be in response to one teen’s suicide on school grounds. I was outraged that the accounts of so many was compromised. But the reporter claimed that all of the kids had actually approved of the accounts to be published. They wanted their thoughts published and not ignored. Apparently, parents have no right to block access if a kid wants their Twitter account ‘out there.’
    Only the parents and other adults complained.

    A brief look at these kids’ accounts very quickly showed a descent into vulgarity, ranting in full fury on everyone and everything, sexual bullying and boasting/teasing, posting of indecent links/photos. The hashtag mentality of Twitter allows massive amounts of kids to ‘express their potty mouths’ however and whomever they wish. I was shocked and sorrowed…I know many of them — they are my former students that I taught in Children’s Liturgy and used to see at Mass all the time.

    Anger is the underlining theme to most kids’ Twitters — what are they angry about? They come from intact families, broken families, many siblings, no siblings, athletes, scholars, teen church leaders, and non-believer kids. Their anger permeates everything. (These are kids from an affluent area, but I’m not sure if that makes a difference.) I am now praying for many more than I was before this discovery. I feel it’s all I can do to help.
    Yes, our kids have been kidnapped.

  • Deb says:

    Hey, if all the parents are on Twitter and Facebook and their blogs, why would those same parents think twice about their kids being on Twitter and Facebook and YouTube? How many parents’ souls have been stolen by the internet, even in the name of supposed good? How many Christians think their work as Christians is done because they spent a couple of hours reading Christian blogs or retweeting Christian tweets or “friending” Christian Facebook pages?

  • […] most read essay on this young blog was one I wrote just two weeks ago titled, “How your child will be kidnapped.” I gave it a provocative name to capture attention and convey the seriousness of the subject matter. […]

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