BANGOR, Maine — The Internet connects us all. It helps us learn, it prevents us from falling out of touch. It also has dangerous pitfalls. In the wake of the death of a 15-year-old Glenburn girl, police, family and friends are urging parents to pay close attention to who their children are talking to and what they’re doing, saying and sharing online.
“We need to prevent this from ever happening again,” said Kristine Wiley, Nichole Cable’s mother, outside a spaghetti dinner to benefit Cable’s memorial fund, which the family plans to use to fund outreach and education efforts to prevent similar tragedies. She said “evil surrounds us,” and children and teens often don’t recognize it.
Police say Kyle Dube, 20, of Orono killed Cable during an apparent kidnapping attempt earlier this month. Dube’s brother told police that Kyle Dube wanted to be a “hero” by being the one to find Cable after she went missing.
Dube has been charged with murder and kidnapping.
Cable and Dube knew each other and had been spending time together in recent months, according to their friends and police. At some point, police say Dube created a false Facebook account under the name “Bryan Butterfield” and began frequently chatting with Cable online and asked repeatedly to meet in person. Cable knew a Bryan Butterfield in real life, and apparently assumed she was speaking with him, according to police.
Eventually, she agreed to meet the fake Butterfield at the end of Spruce Lane in Glenburn, where she lived with her mother, but Dube was hiding and waiting for her in the woods, police say.
Wiley said Cable would not have gone to meet a friend at the end of the road if she’d known it was Dube. Cable’s parents had told her she couldn’t see Dube, in part because he had been involved in a high-speed police pursuit last summer.
“She was done with him,” Wiley said. A text Cable sent to a friend shortly before she left her home said she was going to meet “Bryan.”
Along with physical and DNA evidence gathered at the scene, investigators also gathered information from Cable’s Facebook account, including messages between her and the fake Butterfield, tracking the IP address to Dube’s family’s home in Orono, according to court documents.
Maine State Police Sgt. Troy Gardner of the Major Crimes Unit based in Bangor said Friday that state police view social media as a valuable tool for gathering evidence, in addition to informing the public about a crime or a missing or wanted person. State police, however, seldom derive leads from social media sites because that would involve constant monitoring of pages. Instead, sites such as Facebook are useful in determining relationships and tracking down communications history, he said.
Gardner said that while social media can help police investigations, it can present dangers for users — young and old — if not used with caution.
Cable’s family, friends and police officials have urged teens to be cautious and parents to be vigilant of the information being shared and the types of conversations being had via electronic media.
“We strongly recommend that parents be involved in any teenagers using social media,” Maine State Police spokesman Stephen McCausland said Friday. “There’s a responsibility that goes with this technology, and parents should be actively involved in monitoring it.”
Parents should establish rules early on for their child’s use of the Internet and cellphones, he said. They also should have their children provide them with passwords for their accounts so parents can periodically check to see what sort of information is being posted and what sort of conversations are happening.
There also are programs available that parents can download to track social networking activities on household computers, McCausland said.
Wiley agreed that parents should have access to their children’s online accounts and should monitor them frequently. Parents also should talk to their children frequently about what constitutes risky social network behavior and get to know their children’s friends.
McCausland acknowledged that there would be “pushback from teenagers” who feel their privacy is being invaded and some might create alternate accounts in an attempt to hide them from parents, but the risks still need to be watched and discussed carefully among parents and kids.
“Not everyone is who they seem to be in the social media world,” McCausland said.
A recent Pew Research Center study found that teens are sharing more personal information about themselves than they did six years ago, when social media sites first became popular among young generations. More than 90 percent of teen users posted a photo of themselves, up from 79 percent in 2006. More than 70 percent posted information about their physical location, including their school and hometown, an increase from 49 and 61 percent, respectively. And more than half listed their email address, up from 29 percent six years ago. Twenty percent revealed their cellphone number, an increase from just 2 percent in the same time frame.
Focus groups that Pew researchers spoke with reported that most teens were confident in their ability to manage privacy settings to ensure that only certain people can gain access to their information and they aren’t concerned anyone might be able to see their information.
Facebook isn’t the only social media site that teens are using. The percentage of teens on Twitter has grown from 16 to 24 in just the past year, according to the survey.
Cable’s friends have said they are more wary of social media since her death.
After Dube’s initial court appearance in Bangor, one of Cable’s friends, Jessica Brideau of Old Town, said she would be deleting people she didn’t trust fully or know well from her Facebook friends list that night. She urged others to be cautious.
“Watch your Facebook,” she said. “I’m going home to just delete a bunch of people off there. I don’t know who to trust. It’s hard to trust people on those networks.”
Rebecca Randall, vice president of education programs for San Francisco-based nonprofit Common Sense Media, said it’s more important to teach teens early on to practice caution and restraint on the Internet, rather than to monitor their every move.
“It’s not just about wagging your finger and saying, ‘No,’ and scaring kids,” Randall said.
Common Sense Media focuses on the information and resources children use and view online and how to teach those children how to use the Internet safely and effectively. The agency representatives in Maine and seven other regions across the country work with schools and state education departments to teach “digital literacy and citizenship” to children from kindergarten through high school.
The Internet can be a valuable, important tool for children. When used correctly, it can be a place for children to be creative, stay in touch with friends, build communities, learn and say positive things about one another, Randall said. Children can build a “positive social footprint” on the Web through positive interactions with friends or sharing artistic work. That sort of social networking activity should be encouraged — as should safe online practices.
When the Internet becomes a vehicle for bullying or risky anonymous conversations, that’s when it becomes dangerous, she said.
“Social media is an easy target to blame when something unimaginable and horrific happens in communities,” Randall said.
While teaching children and teens how to use social media responsibly, it’s important to stress that you never know for sure who is the person behind the other keyboard, Randall said.
The Pew study found that teens who were worried about people who aren’t close friends seeing their information on social media sites were more likely to engage in “online reputation management,” meaning they try to have tight control over what information appears on their profile. Teens who practice reputation management tend to delete comments, untag themselves in photographs, or shut down their entire profile if something appears that they don’t want associated with them, according to Pew.
Randall recommended that parents avoid “fear-based messages” when talking to teens about Internet use. Instead, she said, it’s a good idea to talk about the importance of staying true to personal values while online and have conversations about why certain practices, conversations and posts might be unsafe.
Wiley said parents should stay involved and ask questions of their children and strive for an open, honest relationship.
“I’m not saying not to trust or not to love, but to be safe,” Wiley said.