Earlier this month, a 13-year-old girl stole her brother’s car and drove almost eight hundred miles to meet the 12-year-old boy whom she met while playing Xbox.  The 13-year-old stole her mom’s ATM card, snuck out of her bedroom window and hopped into her brother’s 2011 Nissan Versa, according to KRIV-TV.  The girl then drove from Cypress, Texas through Arkansas to Nashville, TN, so meet up with her online boyfriend.

Her mom shared that her daughter had “started to stay in her bedroom more, isolating herself and communicating through the Xbox.”  When the young girl’s father took her Xbox away, she decided to make a break for it.  The teenager was about 50 miles away from Nashville when local police apprehended her.

Fortunately, in this case, no one was hurt and the stranger that this teenager fell in love with was an actual 12-year-old boy and not some scary online creep, however, the reality is that it can be very easy to hide your real identity in the online world.  I’ve worked with a number of kids that have formed online relationships with boys and girls that they originally thought were teenagers or even college-aged kids, only to learn later that the person they were communicating with was an adult (sometimes with kids of their own!).

In the online world, lines are more quickly crossed—boundaries and social norms can become blurred.  A hormone-driven young boy or girl will often make compromises and find themselves in tricky and even dangerous situations.  Many of the kids I have worked with have shared that their first exposure to pornography was through live chats and online communities—images and videos that the people that they’ve met online have forwarded or sent along for them to see.  Additionally, without in-person opportunities for interaction and under the heavy influence of pornography and sex in the media, things can escalate extremely quickly.

Parents often don’t understand that their kids can meet and virtually “hook up” with strangers around the world through the Internet and through their gaming console.  This is why it’s so critical for parents to use parental controls on all Internet-enabled device.  Check up regularly on what your kids are doing online, where they are going online and with whom they are “hanging out”.  Conduct regular “spot checks” to see what they are up to, and keep all Internet-enabled devices in a public area of the home.  For more on protecting your kids online, check out our online safety guide here.