Friday, April 22, 2011

The Cautionary Tale of Kiki Kannibal

Attention, parents. Right now, go to Rolling Stone and read this article: Kiki Kannibal: The Girl Who Played with Fire. I'll wait for you to finish. At the very least, Google her name and check out some of the links that you get. The Urban Dictionary entry gives you the controversy in a nutshell. Some of her older videos may not be on YouTube anymore, but there are still enough available that you can get an idea of who she is.

All done? Are you horrified, outraged, angry? Does it make you want to Google your child's name and see what might be out there that shouldn't be? Or are you thinking, "She's just a kid. Kids do stupid things. She's just expressing herself." If you didn't read or Google, basically Kiki Kannibal is the online persona of a teenage girl who suffered loneliness and was bullied and who took to the Internet in an effort to find some friends. She has toned down her image in recent years, but her provocative dress and tendency to spout intimate details about her life got her some very unwelcome attention.

I don't want to bash Kiki's family or Kiki herself. They know they've made mistakes and are still dealing with the consequences of some terrible situations. What I do want to do is use this as an opportunity to explain why it's extremely important for anyone, regardless of age or circumstance, to closely guard their online profiles. Parents, you absolutely have to know what your kids are doing online, from the time they first see a computer and are fascinated by the mouse until they become of age and move out on their own. At that point, hopefully they've internalized the importance of privacy and will continue to safeguard their personal information.

Here are some things to take away from Kiki's story:
  • Keep your social networking profiles private. Especially if you have a tendency to be outgoing and like to share your entire life with people, you want to keep yourself protected from the open Internet where any weirdo can find you and use your information against you. Just because address and phone number are fields to fill out on a profile form doesn't mean you have to type anything in. And keep in mind that no matter how locked down or secure you think you are, anyone can still copy your status reports or photos or whatever and post them elsewhere without your knowledge.
  • Only friend people you have actually met and have a decent relationship with. Yeah, okay, you might want to friend people you'll be going to college with so you can start conversations over the summer, or there might be relatives you don't especially like but not friending them would hurt their feelings. But you can still take advantage of lists or groups and allow them to see only certain bits of your information. Kiki friended anyone and everyone, realizing these weren't really people in her life but only numbers on her MySpace page, and she ended up with an abusive boyfriend and tons of Internet enemies. Yes, her story is extreme, but her life became a living hell because she didn't protect her privacy. Weed your friends lists once in a while, and don't feel bad about refusing requests from people you don't know.
  • Never engage a troll. The Rolling Stone cover called Kiki "the most hated girl on the Internet." I'm not sure that can be quantified, and I'm not sure "hated" is really the right word. Internet trolls are really just bullies who are hiding behind the anonymity of cyberspace, but unfortunately, there isn't much anyone can do about them except delete their comments and block them from websites. From some comments I saw online, Kiki would engage these trolls and ended up sounding like a bully herself. So don't respond. That's what they want, and they'll keep making you mad until you do or say something stupid. Take the high road and refuse to let things escalate.
  • Know how to report cyberbullying or Internet crime. Contact your local police before things get out of hand. Unfortunately, they were less than helpful for Kiki's family, but persistence pays off. Find out what the police can do for you. Be in contact with your kids' schools to raise awareness about bullying and have some no-tolerance policies and procedures put into place. Stay involved in your kids' lives, know who their friends are, both online and in person. Preventive measures could have saved Kiki from years of heartache.
  • Absolutely never meet anyone in person who you've met online but don't know for real. No matter how nice a person seems online, keep in mind that they may be totally different in real life. If you must set up a meeting, select a public place and maybe bring a friend. Tell people where you're going, what time, and when you'll be back. Call someone to check in so they know you're safe. Be aware that people can lie online about their age and about any other fact. Someone who seems young online can turn out to be an adult. Male predators are savvy about finding lonely teen girls online by pretending to be teens themselves. They seem so caring and attentive online but are actually abusive and selfish.
There's one last thing that I keep coming back to from Kiki's story. She acknowledges that she was lonely and didn't fit in at school. She realizes that online friends cannot take the place of real ones. Her parents say they made mistakes and would have done things differently. What could they have done? What can parents do now to hopefully prevent their children from suffering as much as Kiki?
  1. First, don't let your daughters dress like sluts. I'm sorry to be so blunt, and in a perfect world it shouldn't matter what a girl wears. However, our world is not perfect, and girls need to know that dress can be a powerful tool for good or bad. I'm not saying dressing like a slut guarantees she'll be raped or that not dressing like one means she won't. I am saying men can get the wrong idea if a girl presents herself in a certain way. Predators don't need much encouragement to act. Kiki's mother says she didn't want to stifle Kiki's creativity concerning fashion. Um, dressing provocatively is not creative or fashionable. It's a cry for help. Kiki needed acceptance and wanted to be noticed. She ended up being noticed for her body and not for herself as a person. To broaden this to include boys and to make a general statement: Parents need to be parents, not their children's best friends.
  2. Second, get your kids involved in activities. I have nothing against homeschooling, or public school or private school. Every child and every family is different and requires different responses to situations. However, even though Kiki was bullied at her public school, was homeschooling really the answer? I'm not advocating staying in a dangerous situation, but pulling her out only isolated her further. Was there no other public school she could attend? How much did her parents push the administration to address the bullying issue? Were there any private schools around that might take her on scholarship if her parents couldn't afford tuition? Even if homeschooling was the best option, were there no community groups she could join to meet people? What about church or some place of worship? Community theatre? She might be introverted at heart, but she has a dramatic personality. She wouldn't have to be on stage in front of an audience, but could join the crew. She got her GED so she wouldn't have to worry about education, so could she take classes at a community college? This is another way that might make her feel isolated as she'd be younger than many of her classmates, but still, she'd be meeting people. How about volunteering somewhere, getting a job? Kiki did start her own jewelry-making business, so maybe she could have attended crafting workshops (or perhaps led one)? Maybe she could have approached local businesses about selling her products in their stores? The Internet seems like a cure for loneliness and does make it easy to find people, but sometimes it also makes it hard to find real, personal connections that translate into deep friendship. Kiki needed encouragement to step out of her comfort zone and into some interests or hobbies that would put her in contact with flesh and blood humans and not rely on conversations strictly over ethernet.
Again, I don't want to badmouth Kiki or her family. I don't want to pillory her. I simply want to use her story as an example of what not to do. Parents need to know what's going on with their kids, and everyone needs to protect themselves online. Learn from Kiki's mistakes so you don't repeat them.

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