[This talk contains graphic content. Viewer discretion is advised.]
This is Nina Rodríguez's Facebook profile. This person had three different profiles and 890 kids between 8 and 13 years old among her friends list. These are excerpts of a chat with one of those kids. This is an exact copy of the chat. It's part of the case file. This kid started sending private photos until his family realized what was going on. The police report and subsequent investigation lead them to a house. This was the girl's bedroom. Nina Rodríguez was actually a 24-year-old man that used to do this with lots of kids.
Micaela Ortega was 12 years old when she went to meet her new Facebook friend, also 12. "Rochi de River," was her name. She actually met Jonathan Luna, who was 26 years old. When they finally caught him, he confessed that he killed the girl because she refused to have sex with him. He had four Facebook profiles and 1,700 women on his contact list; 90 percent of them were under 13 years old.
These are two different cases of "grooming": an adult contacts a kid through the internet, and through manipulation or lying, leads that kid into sexual territory — from talking about sex to sharing private photos, recording the kid using a webcam or arranging an in-person meeting. This is grooming. This is happening, and it's on the rise. The question is: What are we going to do? Because, in the meantime, kids are alone. They finish dinner, go to their rooms, close the door, get on their computer, their cell phones, and get into a bar, into a club.
Think for one second about what I've just said: they're in a place full of strangers in an uninhibited environment. The internet broke physical boundaries. When we're alone in our bedroom and we go online, we're not really alone.
There are at least two reasons why we're not taking care of this, or at least not in the right way. First, we're sure that everything that happens online is "virtual." In fact, we call it "the virtual world." If you look it up in the dictionary, something virtual is something that seems to exist but is not real. And we use that word to talk about the internet: something not real. And that's the problem with grooming. It is real. Degenerate, perverted adults use the internet to abuse boys and girls and take advantage of, among other things, the fact that the kids and their parents think that what happens online doesn't actually happen.
Several years ago, some colleagues and I founded an NGO called "Argentina Cibersegura," dedicated to raising awareness about online safety. In 2013, we attended meetings at the House of Legislature to discuss a law about grooming. I remember that a lot of people thought that grooming was strictly a precursor to arranging an in-person meeting with a kid to have sex with them. But they didn't think about what happened to the kids who were exposed by talking about sex with an adult without knowing it, or who shared intimate photos thinking only another kid would see them, or even worse, who had exposed themselves using their web cam. Nobody considered that rape. I'm sure lots of you find it odd to think one person can abuse another without physical contact. We're programmed to think that way. I know, because I used to think that way. I was just an IT security guy until this happened to me.
At the end of 2011, in a little town in Buenos Aires Province, I heard about a case for the first time. After giving a talk, I met the parents of an 11-year-old girl who had been a victim of grooming. A man had manipulated her into masturbating in front of her web cam, and recorded it. And the video was on several websites. That day, her parents asked us, in tears, to tell them the magic formula for how to delete those videos from the internet. It broke my heart and changed me forever to be their last disappointment, telling them it was too late: once content is online, we've already lost control.
Since that day, I think about that girl waking up in the morning, having breakfast with her family, who had seen the video, and then walking to school, meeting people that had seen her naked, arriving to school, playing with her friends, who had also seen her. That was her life. Exposed. Of course, nobody raped her body. But hadn't her sexuality been abused?
We clearly use different standards to measure physical and digital things. And we get angry at social networks because being angry with ourselves is more painful and more true. And this brings us to the second reason why we aren't paying proper attention to this issue. We're convinced that kids don't need our help, that they "know everything" about technology.
When I was a kid, at one point, my parents started letting me walk to school alone. After years of taking me by the hand and walking me to school, one day they sat me down, gave me the house keys and said, "Be very careful with these; don't give them to anyone, take the route we showed you, be at home at the time we said, cross at the corner, and look both ways before you cross, and no matter what, don't talk to strangers." I knew everything about walking, and yet, there was a responsible adult there taking care of me. Knowing how to do something is one thing, knowing how to take care of yourself is another. Imagine this situation: I'm 10 or 11 years old, I wake up in the morning, my parents toss me the keys and say, "Seba, now you can walk to school alone." And when I come back late, they say, "No, you need to be home at the time we said." And two weeks later, when it comes up, they say, "You know what? You have to cross at the corner, and look both ways before crossing." And two years later, they say, "And also, don't talk to strangers." It sounds absurd, right?
We have the same absurd behavior in relation to technology. We give kids total access and we see if one day, sooner or later, they learn how to take care of themselves. Knowing how to do something is one thing, knowing how to take care of yourself is another.
Along those same lines, when we talk to parents, they often say they don't care about technology and social networks. I always rejoin that by asking if they care about their kids. As adults, being interested or not in technology is the same as being interested or not in our kids. The internet is part of their lives. Technology forces us to rethink the relationship between adults and kids. Education was always based on two main concepts: experience and knowledge. How do we teach our kids to be safe online when we don't have either?
Nowadays, we adults have to guide our children through what is often for us unfamiliar territory — territory much more inviting for them. It's impossible to find an answer without doing new things — things that make us uncomfortable, things we're not used to.
A lot of you may think it's easy for me, because I'm relatively young. And it used to be that way. Used to. Until last year, when I felt the weight of my age on my shoulders the first time I opened Snapchat.
I didn't understand a thing! I found it unnecessary, useless, hard to understand; it looked like a camera! It didn't have menu options! It was the first time I felt the gap that sometimes exists between kids and adults. But it was also an opportunity to do the right thing, to leave my comfort zone, to force myself. I never thought I'd ever use Snapchat, but then I asked my teenage cousin to show me how to use it. I also asked why she used it. What was fun about it? We had a really nice talk. She showed me her Snapchat, she told me things, we got closer, we laughed. Today, I use it.
I don't know if I do it right, but the most important thing is that I know it and I understand it. The key was to overcome the initial shock and do something new. Something new. Today, we have the chance to create new conversations. What's the last app you downloaded? Which social network do you use to contact your friends? What kind of information do you share? Have you ever been approached by strangers? Could we have these conversations between kids and adults? We have to force ourselves to do it. All of us. Today, lots of kids are listening to us. Sometimes when we go to schools to give our talks, or through social networks, kids ask or tell us things they haven't told their parents or their teachers. They tell us — they don't even know us. Those kids need to know what the risks of being online are, how to take care of themselves, but also that, fundamentally, as with almost everything else, kids can learn this from any adult.
Online safety needs to be a conversation topic in every house and every classroom in the country. We did a survey this year that showed that 15 percent of schools said they knew of cases of grooming in their school. And this number is growing. Technology changed every aspect of our life, including the risks we face and how we take care of ourselves.
Grooming shows us this in the most painful way: by involving our kids. Are we going to do something to avoid this? The solution starts with something as easy as: talking about it.