Nothing can mitigate the tragedy of Nicole Madison Lovell’s murder. Right now, when parents throughout the US hear her name or see her picture flash across their screens, they stop and listen to details of the case. They’re hoping for information, news, anything that will reassure them their child won’t be next. Unfortunately, the messages they’re getting from the media aren’t terribly helpful at protecting their children.
The most recent press I can find on her murder is hinting at something experts assumed from the beginning; that Nicole was being sexaully abused, or groomed for abuse, by the man charged with her murder, David Eisenhauer. We hear about children being sexually abused all the time, and in the stories that get press, the abuse is usually committed by adults who were related to the child or within the child’s circle of trust. What makes this case particularly scary is that it appears Nicole met David through social media.
A generation ago, child sexual abuse was as insignificant as the internet in the minds of most parents. Now, the internet brings us stories of child sexual abuse, including stories of children whose sexual abuse was facilitated by the internet. However, correlation does not equal causation, and here are some things to keep in mind:
The Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study, which was conducted in the 1990’s, of people who mostly grew up in the 1940’s and 1950’s, showed that over 20% of participants were sexually abused as children. This means child sexual abuse was an epidemic in our culture long before the internet and smartphones.
There is no evidence that child sexual abuse is becoming more common. There are actually oft repeated statistics that it’s becoming less common. Since it takes child sex abuse survivors an average of 23 years before they can start talking about their abuse I have some scepticism about the research methodologies. But as imperfect as they are, no researchers are suggesting child sex abuse has become more common in the last twenty years.
The local sheriff appearing on TV saying “I’ve never seen more sex abuse cases than I have this year” is not research. It is one individual who handles a very small percent of total national child sex abuse cases stating a fact, in a vacuum. He may be investigating more cases because he got training, because mandated reporting laws changed, because the community is being trained about child sexual abuse, or many other factors.
Before the rise of the internet, sex offenders met their prey and prepared them for abuse in person. Typically, they still do. Internet communication allows the predator and prey to communicate more, with more privacy, and it may allow the predator to sexualize the process faster. Kids do, indeed, patronize online chat rooms and groups, and predators can, indeed, access them. Predators often ask kids for sexually suggestive pictures. These are gratifying for the predator, they often make the child feel they’re in a “legitimate” relationship, and they are also a source of blackmail if the child decides to tell. Remember, usually this is a person the child knows face-to-face. When it isn’t, and the child makes the decision to run off with them, the child usually does it with the knowledge and expectation that they are entering into a sexual relationship.
This sounds like what happened with Nicole. She left her house with a water bottle and a blanket and nothing else, which sounds like she was expecting romance. She mentioned having an “older boyfriend” on social media. She was not old enough to give consent to sex, and what exactly she planned on doing that night will never be known. But it’s important that we get the narrative right, a child was lured by someone with power into doing something unwise and dangerous. A tragic scenario that happens every day. And it would have happened with or without the internet.
It is important for parents to protect their kids from as many causes of harm as possible. But with child sexual abuse, the world is so full of risk that it’s very easy for parents to ignore the significant ones in favor of the tragedy of the week. Doing so will cause them to focus on the areas of least risk, the spooky stranger, lurking behind an alley or a url, instead of someone known and trusted by themselves and their kids.
The attention parents are now expending on learning about social media platforms would be better spent learning about child sexual abuse. The energy being spent convincing the designers of social media platforms to make their product safer for children would be better spent convincing lawmakers to makers to reform the Statutes of Limitations for child sex abuse, thus making their states safer for children. These solutions don’t seem as satisfying as piecemeal adjustments to the way youth use social media. But they are the ones likely to work.
COO, Stop Abuse Campaign
A survivor of incest, psychological abuse and a host of other childhood trauma, Melanie now uses her talents to prevent Adverse Childhood Experiences. Melanie has over a decade of legislative advocacy regarding children’s issues, and she has been published in newspapers, magazines and blogs all across the country.