A new video that has gotten more than 1.8 million views since it was posted to YouTube on Monday is intended to show just how willing teenage girls are to meet a stranger with whom they’ve only communicated online.
Online prankster Coby Persin decided to conduct a social experiment, seeing how easy it would be to lure teens he didn’t know into meeting him in person, after he saw a news segment featuring a similar incident. In the story, a Los Angeles father witnessed his 12-year-old daughter being abducted by a 27-year-old man she’d met on social media. “That’s how I got the idea that people needed to be educated,” Persin tells Yahoo Parenting. “I always get my ideas from real life, so I made this video because I wanted to spread awareness.”
In the video, 21-year-old Persin, with permission from each teen’s parents, connects with three different girls via Facebook. He communicates with each girl over the course of three days to a week before suggesting they meet in person. With the cameras rolling, he comes face to face with the three girls. But also present at those meetings are the girls’ parents, who react harshly to seeing their daughters so willingly meet a stranger. The moms and dads yell at the girls, screaming about the dangers of going off with strange men, and about their fear at seeing their children make bad decisions.
To find the subjects in the video, Persin says he placed a Craigslist ad looking for parents of kids who spend a ton of time on social media. He told all parents his intentions, and in each case they agreed to let Persin try to lure in their daughter. None of the parents actually thought their kid would go through with the meeting, Persin says. “I asked the parents, ‘have you talked to your kids about not talking to strangers?’” he explains. “They all said yes.”
Persin says he communicated with a few girls who seemed like they wouldn’t fall for the hoax, and therefore didn’t pursue those connections. As for the three that did meet him, Persin says they realized their mistake immediately. “There’s one girl who is screaming for her life, she was so scared she couldn’t even talk,” he says, referring to the final girl in the video, who got into his van and was immediately grabbed as if she was being abducted. “It probably struck her in that moment, ‘What was I thinking?’ She knew she did something wrong.”
Despite Persin’s belief that “the world needed to see this,” Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids, says the video is largely a scare tactic. “It reinforces the idea that every child is in constant danger from strangers, and that’s not the case,” she tells Yahoo Parenting. “I think it’s worthwhile to have a conversation with your kids and tell them that they can talk to anyone, but they cannot go off with anyone. I’m not saying that this never happens, but what disturbs me about our culture is that we are encouraged to think in terms of the worst-case scenario in every situation.”
Skenazy says her biggest concern in the video is not the girls but the parents, who are complicit in playing this trick on their daughters. “I can’t imagine traumatizing my child that way and breaking any kind of trust that might have existed beforehand,” she says. “To me, they are completely humiliating their kids in a misguided effort to keep them safe from a very unlikely danger.”
Facing every scenario as a potential danger, Skenazy says, is “completely paralyzing,” especially since encounters like the ones simulated on this video are “so rare and so random.”
But a 2013 study published in the journal Pediatrics found that these kinds of encounters aren’t all that rare. According to that research, about 30 percent of teen girls surveyed admitted to meeting someone in real life who they had previously only spoken to online, without fully confirming the person’s identity beforehand.
Dr. Barbara Greenberg, an adolescent psychologist, says that when it comes to teens talking with strangers online and wanting to meet them, it happens more than parents probably think. “It’s not that teens don’t care about the risks,” she tells Yahoo Parenting. “But what happens with teen girls is they weigh the benefits more than the risks, and it’s really exciting to get attention from a male. So they weigh those thrills more than ‘oh, this could happen to me.’”
To protect kids, parents should start by sitting down with their child once a month and combing through their Facebook friends. “Parents should find out how their kids know each person on the list,” she says. “No one has 500 friends, so if their child is communicating with someone who is a friend of a friend of a friend, unless they’ve already met that person in real life, they should be removed from the contact list.”
Greenberg says that parents should also use news stories, including Persin’s video, as teaching tools. “I believe teens are more responsive if their parents bring up a story that happened to someone else, because then the kids don’t get defensive. The conversation isn’t about something they did wrong,” she says. “Show this video to your kids, and ask them their opinion about it. That’s when you get a dialogue going, not when you simply sit down and tell kids what not to do.”
For his part, Persin says he’s received a number of emails and messages from adults thanking him for the video. “They say things like ‘I did this when I was young and almost put myself in real danger,’ or ‘I’m so glad I can show this to my daughter,’” he says.
In fact, the video has been so successful that Persin is currently producing the “boy version,” where he poses as a woman luring in young boys, to be posted next week.