Editorial: Teen’s tragic death and danger online

West Virginians are gripped by the tragic case of a 16-year-old Cross Lanes girl who police say met a man sexually through the Internet — but he turned out to be an odd criminal, living in a tent, who allegedly murdered her and dumped her plastic-wrapped body beside the Ohio River.

This horrifying story should jolt parents to beware of what their children do in secret, anonymous realms of cyberspace.

The murdered girl’s father posted a warning: “Make sure you know what sites they are on. Children are so private, and that’s a dangerous place to be.”

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin added:

“We see circumstances like these happening frequently, where a posting on an online bulletin board or a social media relationship is struck up, and the person on the other end, you don’t know who they are. It’s happening time and again, where individuals connect over the Internet and from there it gets very ugly, very fast.”

In the past, parents could keep the family computer in the living room, where children’s online activity could be watched. But that era vanished. Now, youths have access to many tablets, smartphones, laptops and other private connections.

About one-fifth of U.S. children between 10 and 17 have been solicited sexually through the Internet, The Journal of the American Medical Association estimated. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics posted a study saying this alarming rate was exaggerated.

“Considering that 25 percent of kids online participate in real-time chat and 13 million use instant messaging, the risk of such children interacting with a predator is alarming,” ProtectKids.com says.

In a report titled “Growing Up Online,” Science News said teens have “aggressively colonized” certain private zones of the Internet. Incredibly, it said, there are more than 400 sites for youths who crave to slash themselves with sharp objects.

USA Today and People magazine told of a 13-year-old Connecticut honor student and cheerleader who met men online — and one killed her.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children teamed up with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, U.S. Customs Service and Federal Bureau of Investigation to operate the National CyberTipline (1-800-843-5678 — TheLost), which receives tips about victims of child pornography, sexual exploitation and the like.

Its Web site, missingkids.com, lists three West Virginians who vanished: Nathsha Carter of Beckley (gone since 2000), Aliayah Lunsford of Weston (since 2011) and Victor Shoemaker of Kirby, Hampshire County, (since 1994).

Even if cases like that of the Cross Lanes girl are somewhat rare, it’s nonetheless a warning to parents everywhere.

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