June 1, 2023

Can We Keep Kids Safe Online?

Inside This Episode

Contrary to popular belief, the most dangerous place for kids is a lot closer than we think. On today’s episode, Sam Chapman, husband of world-renowned sex and relationship expert Dr. Laura Berman, shares their tragic story of loss at the hands of an online drug dealer targeting teens with fentanyl. Plus, online safety expert Rania Mankarious offers solutions for how parents can protect an entire generation of children growing up in unprecedented times, and a special offer for Maybe God listeners from the founder of Parent ProTech.

Featured book: “The Online World, What You Think You Know and What You Don't: 4 Critical Tools for Raising Kids in the Digital Age” by Rania Mankarious

Access Maybe God Discount for Parent ProTech: https://course.parentprotech.com/courses/parentprotech?coupon=maybegodpodcast

Dr. Laura Berman’s organization for parents: https://parentsforsaferchildren.org/

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Julie Mirlicourtois: Hey, everyone. Before we get started today, I'd like to take a moment to remind you that the official trailer for Maybe God's first-ever documentary series called Across has been released on our brand new website, acrossdocumentary.com, as well as on Maybe God's YouTube channel. So when you're done listening to this episode, please watch the trailer for this very timely and important four-part documentary about the crisis at our southern border. And if you'd like to see and share all of our latest clips and content on Facebook and Instagram, just follow us @acrossdocumentary.

The official release date for the entire award-winning series will be June 20th, and we're just so excited to finally share Across with the world. I promise you, this documentary is unlike anything you've seen on the news about the immigration crisis. And no matter your politics, the Maybe God team believes we can all be challenged and changed by hearing these incredible stories of faith and love conquering fear and hate. So stay tuned for more information on how you can watch the full series beginning on June 20th. Thanks, everyone.

Eric Huffman: Today on Maybe God.

Sam Chapman: We thought everyone was safe. That was the one blessing of the pandemic, was that we had the kids safely ensconced in their rooms in our home.

Eric Huffman: Contrary to popular belief, the most dangerous place for kids is a lot closer than we think.

Rania Mankarious: The FBI said on any given day, there's 500,000, 750,000 seasoned predators online targeting anywhere from ten to more children.

Eric Huffman: Husband of world-renowned sex and relationship expert, Dr. Laura Berman, shares their tragic story of loss at the hands of an online drug dealer targeting teens.

Sam Chapman: 300 people are dying a day from fentanyl poisoning. So it's like a jumbo jet dropping from the sky every day full of people.

Eric Huffman: Online safety expert Rania Mankarious offers solutions for how parents can protect an entire generation of children growing up in unprecedented times.

Rania Mankarious: We've got to sit down and ask our kids, why are they chatting, why are they gaming, why are they social media-ing and what do they want to accomplish? Because that's going to shape who they are in the space.

Eric Huffman: You're listening to Maybe Gold. I'm Eric Huffman. Earlier this year, I interviewed mental health expert Dr. John Delony for an episode of Maybe God, and I was struck by the consistency and clarity of his message. No matter what issues a person is having, when they call The John Delony Show, they're going to get loving and level-headed advice. Why? Because Dr. John knows exactly who he is and exactly why he's here. And he interprets every interaction on his show through that specific lens.

Talking to Dr. John really got us thinking, What is the Maybe God podcast here to do? Obviously, we want to have great conversations and tell great stories about faith and doubt. But to what end? Well, at the end of the day, this podcast is all about you, the listener. If we're not serving you or helping you in some meaningful way, then this is all for nothing. When I asked Dr. John point blank what churches like mine and podcasts like this should be doing differently, he basically said, "Stop being so theoretical and just help people live their lives." And he's right. Life is hard. People everywhere are struggling to navigate mental health challenges and to build healthy relationships and to try to keep their kids safe. And our desire to help is really what inspired today's episode.

Because now that summer is here and now the kids everywhere suddenly have more time on their hands and in particular more screen time on their hands, we believe this episode could have the power to save lives. We start today with the leading public safety expert, the CEO of Crime Stoppers of Houston, and the author of The Online World, What You Think You Know and What You Don't: 4 Critical Tools for Raising Kids in the Digital Age.

Rania Mankarious has a master's in marriage and family therapy and a law degree which makes her well-suited to lead a nonprofit organization like Crime Stoppers that works to solve and prevent serious crime in the Houston area.

Rania Mankarious: So we actually run the largest safe school institute in the state. We've been in the school since 1997. Well before anyone was talking about school safety, our team was in middle schools and high schools. We recognized that the students were the first line of intelligence. So many people talk about school safety and they're like, "Okay, kids, just stop talking for a second. Let the adults figure this out." And the kids, they're the ones that know everything. They know who's going to bring a gun, who's going to bring a knife, who's selling drugs. They know everything.

So we focused on the kids and we found that they actually want to share the information they have. They're afraid of retaliation. So the fact that we offer an anonymous platform, they hang on to it and they called us. and going into middle schools and high schools consistently all these years has led to us being able to remove almost 300 weapons from Houston area schools before they could ever be used against another student, because the kids themselves are afraid.

We've had some kids that call and say, Little Jimmy is selling—this is a true case—54 different types of prescription medication from out of his locker. Can you imagine if you go up there and you're like, "I want a Xanax, a Percocet, and Adderall," and you have other medical conditions or these don't go well together, now, you worry about fentanyl? I mean, these kids know what's right and what's not right. So they talk to us and we're very thankful for it.

Now, that program has expanded. Now we're in kindergarten to 12th grade. We're not talking about, you know, the tip line to elementary school students, but we are talking about, what does it mean to care about your community, to respect authority, to respect law enforcement, who's a stranger, who's a bad stranger, online safety. We got to start talking about teen dating, violence in early middle school years, drugs, terroristic threats, gang activity, human trafficking, grooming. Our kids today, I will say without question, our kids today are not being raised in a world that's even remotely similar to the one you and I were raised in.

Eric Huffman: Yeah, you start your book by saying, I was a child of the 80s. And I was resonating with that because I thank God because of the innocence of our upbringing, relative innocence, but the old people when we were growing up, we're saying the world was lost then.

Rania Mankarious: Now they're like-

Eric Huffman: Madonna.

Rania Mankarious: ...It's gone.

Eric Huffman: Like a virgin was the worst. That would be nothing today. It's overly sexualized but overly violent as well. But when we think about some of this violence and school shootings are at the forefront of every parent's mind, what are you seeing that sort of contribute to that phenomenon?

Rania Mankarious: School shootings specifically I think it's a mix of students who went through a system where they felt isolated, they felt insecure, bullied, they did not figure out a way to adjust or cope. They didn't have a community that was reaching out to them, helping them adjust in cope. They become suicidal and then homicidal. So they're willing to take their lives. They're happy to take their lives, but they're going to take out others with them. And they usually go to the source of the pain or want to inflict the most horrific pain they can. And what's worse than a school shooting?

I'll also say schools were not built to be safe structures. You go into an airport, there's one way in usually. There's not 17 different entrances and 50 different ways to get to your gate. Thousands of people are pushed through one or two security points where they're literally checked.

Eric Huffman: Same at a bank or other places. Like usually there's one.

Rania Mankarious: Yes. The building is built with physical safety in mind. Schools are not that way. Schools are built in the 60s, 70s. You will have many different ways to come in and out, for kids to play, the playground's open, the fences are old. So it's also a soft spot in terms of security. So it kind of set itself up to have our kids be sitting there easy targets.

But that whole culture's changing in terms of schools still they are the safest place for your kids to be. School communities have done so much to secure, even if they're in old buildings, but to secure your students and to have a plan in place to talk about how they're going to respond to a threat even down to... and this is one thing I always tell parents, please make sure your school has done this. But even down to making sure the local police department, the local fire department have the updated blueprints for the school. You know, if there's going to be a school shooting and you want to say the shooter is in the cafeteria, you don't want the police pulling a PDF of the blueprints from six years before where the cafeterias mismarked because you've done some constructions or renovations and now they don't know where the cafeteria is.

So even down to those details, reunification where the kids go when they leave school, how do you get to your children again, all of that the schools have poured so much money and effort and time into updating and creating methods if they didn't have one. So it's still scary. It's awful. I've three kids. It kills me. And I know you have kids. I don't know if you've ever heard them talking to each other. Like, what would you do if there was a shooter in the school? Like, well, I know we've been trained, but what would you really do? I want to die when I hear them talk about that. I want to die.

Eric Huffman: Same. What really gets me is when they joke about it, because that's their way of just sort of coping.

Rania Mankarious: Coping.

Eric Huffman: They'll joke about this or that. And it's devastating. But there's no easy way out of that reality because that's the world we're living in now. I guess it's better that they talk about it than they keep it locked in somewhere inside and let the fear and anxiety fester. Everybody that talks about this loudly seems to have their idea of what the solution is. You've got some people that say, just take all the guns away, which seems unrealistic at this point of our culture. And you got people saying, Well, let's arm the teachers, which I'm so glad my high school teachers didn't have any weapons when I was acting a fool in their classes. That seems a little bit extreme. What do you think are real practical solutions other than the ones you've shared already?

Rania Mankarious: Even if we were to stop manufacturing guns today, that doesn't solve the problem because there are so many out in the community and they're in the hands of the wrong people. And then you have kids online creating ghost guns that actually kill people. So the issue is more systemic and goes to the culture and goes to sort of the hearts of people.

I will say, if I have to go through the bullet points, we do have to be stricter in terms of who we sell guns to. There has to be a better system of selling guns or the transfer of gun ownership. We have to have harsher penalties for people who do commit crimes with guns, whether it's stealing a gun or using a gun in the commission of a crime. And right now, those laws are not where they need to be.

The Kaiser Family Foundation just did a study about gun ownership in homes. And 75% of the people that did have a gun in the home, 75% said they store the gun loaded, usually not in a locked location, and the ammunition right next to it. So if you have a kid in the house who's distressed, that kid has easy access to that weapon, that's a problem. So if you do have a gun, it's your right, I have no comment. But I do think it has to be secured properly and not easy for kids to get.

Eric Huffman: And penalized if you don't properly store or secure your weapon.

Rania Mankarious: Yes. But how do you enforce that?

Eric Huffman: I don't know.

Rania Mankarious: That's another problem. And then I think community engagement. We've got to raise a generation that doesn't say, You're different. I don't like you. I'm going to shun you and isolate you. We've got to say, Okay, maybe you're different, maybe we're not going to be the best of friends but I have no... you want to sit next to us at lunch? Fantastic. You had a funny thing you want to share with us? Great.

We've got to embrace each other. We don't have to all love each other, but we've got to embrace one another because that helps remove some of the deep aggression, and that feeling of “you are nothing”. If I were to shoot you today, it doesn't matter because you're nothing. We've got to start building bridges between each other. And we've got, as a community, to systemically engage in those solutions. If we see something, we've got to report it, if we see someone in distress, we've got to embrace them and advocate for solutions that need to be spoken about every single day.

Eric Huffman: Right. Right. It's a tough one, to say the least. One of the most shocking things about reading your book and following your work, though, is just the realization that school is not the least safe place that our kids are or can be these days. And that's, I guess, part of the reason why you decided to write this book about our kids in digital spaces and the online world. Why did you decide exactly to focus on this?

Rania Mankarious: We were speaking at a school, our organization was speaking at a school in, I think 2016, their fourth graders. And we had celebrity guests that day, Roula and Ryan, from 104.1 KRBE, very popular radio station here in Houston. They were celebrity presenters. And we gave them a script and I'm in the back of the room, we have all the entire fourth grade, all the fourth-grade classes in this auditorium, and the parents are left and right.

So they're saying, "Hey, how many of you kids are on Facebook?" And the kids are like, "No, borings. That's where parents are." Like, okay, we know. "How many of you are on Instagram? Woohoo. How many of you are on Snapchat? Woohoo! And then I waited for this question. How many of you are on Kik? It's spelled K-I-K. And a sea of hands shot up. They didn't just like, yeah, that's me. But like straight arm. That's when kids like, Yes, that's me. And I took a picture and I shared the picture in our presentation. And I remember looking at the parents the left and right of the room, and they're like, What is Kik?

Eric Huffman: A Kickstarter?

Rania Mankarious: Yes. Are the kids kickboxing? So fun. What is Kik? And at the time, Kik was one of the most dangerous social media platforms a kid could be on. One of the most. And you had a sea of like 9-year-olds on it and parents having no idea. So I really honed in and, you know, I had young kids myself in elementary school, I really started focusing and I spent five years researching this area and talked to other experts that said, You know what, Kids should just not be on technology at all. But that's not totally realistic. Talk to other parents who said, "I'm trying so hard, I'm trying to learn the apps. I'm trying, but every time I learn it, they're on something different. I think they can hide it from me. I don't know the technology. We didn't grow up with it." And then kids who would say, "I'm literally in the worst possible place, I don't even know how I got here."

So I wanted a solution. Crime Stoppers, the spirit of our entire organization is solutions. We want to work with everyone. We want to find solutions for everyone. So I spent a lot of time talking to kids of all ages and creating evergreen solutions that a parent says, This works from here forever. And kids would say, I actually agree with that.

Eric Huffman: Right, Right. We grew up in a more innocent time and are just not as literate as we should be or could be in terms of protecting our kids against what they're actually up against. And our kids thinks the things that are actually out to get them are the coolest things. So they are also defenseless in some ways. Tell us a little bit about just the gamut of different sort of nefarious things going on online that led you to write this book.

Rania Mankarious: One, it was the reality that all of our kids are connected to technology. I mean, I'll talk to parents that say, Well, I'm not going to let my kid get a phone. And say, Okay, what do they have? An iPad? Oh, my gosh. Yes, of course, they have an iPad. So do they have a smartwatch? Well, yeah, I have to be able to reach them. Do they have a digital camera? Yeah, because they like photography. Do you have a PlayStation? Well, of course they have a PlayStation. I'm like, Well, that's the number one way boys access pornography through their gaming consoles.

So we cannot cut out technology. Technology is fantastic, by the way. I mean, where would we be without it? But too, like everything that's good, people find a way to make it bad. So there's a lot of people who say, this technology gives me direct access to your children, and I want that for negative reasons. So what does that look like? It's asking for nude pictures. It's trying to lure kids out of their homes. It's selling them pills that are laced with fentanyl. It's abuse that's so relentless that kids are taking their own lives. It's exploiting kids for money, blackmailing them. It's identity theft.

The number one victim of your home for identity theft is not mom or dad. It's usually a kid under 18 because you're not running a line of credit on your child until they go to college. There's so many different things. One thing that's always stuck with me is when you really study predators, it dawned on me that the greatest gift you can give a predator or somebody who has ill intention for your child is a child and a family that's oblivious to the dangers. So let's not do that.

Eric Huffman: Right. Right. Yeah, it can be overwhelming, but it's just a matter of are we going to do the due diligence and protect our children or not. Those are the choices. And as much as it feels like an insurmountable task, I think parents have to dive in. And you're going to win some and lose some. But you better go down fighting if you're going to go down. I think it's worth the fight.

Your book opens up with a sort of a preface from a couple that lost a child, and one of them is a familiar name, Dr. Laura Berman and Sam Chapman wrote about their son, Sammy. This forward was so touching. But tell us why you invited them to write that.

Rania Mankarious: You know, I've loved Dr. Laura Berman for a long time because I love the way she took her issue and created ways... You know, she deals with family therapy, relationships, sex therapy. And I thought it was very interesting the way she made that very palpable for the average person and mainstream. And I thought that was great. And I admire that because I wanted to take public safety and family safety and sort of mirror what she was doing.

So when I saw the news that their son died, I reached out to them right away and ended up talking to Sam Chapman, who's an incredible man.

Sam Chapman: My name is Sam Chapman, and I'm married to Dr. Laura Berman and we have two children, Jackson and Ethan. And we lost one child to fentanyl poisoning two years ago, and his name was Sammy.

Eric Huffman: Dr. Laura Berman is one of the most well-known sex and relationship therapists in the world, a frequent guest on national TV shows. She and her husband, Sam Chapman, never imagined that one day they feel compelled to leverage her celebrity platform to warn other parents about the dangers of social media. As parents, they'd worked hard to keep their 16-year-old son Sammy away from dangerous people and places. But in 2021, they were unable to protect their son from the most dangerous person he'd ever met.

Sam Chapman: So we were in our house on Super Bowl Sunday, it was during lockdown and Sammy was up in his room, as was our other boy, Jackson. We thought everyone was safe and that was sort of the one blessing of the pandemic was that we had the kids safely ensconced in their rooms or in our home. But a drug dealer had approached Sammy on Snapchat a couple of days before and delivered what Sammy thought was pharmaceutical to our home as if it were a pizza. He snuck out after hours and accepted the delivery. It turned out what he had received was fentanyl, and he took some that Sunday, and we found him dead on the floor.

We tried to resuscitate him and failed. The EMTs arrived and tried to resuscitate him and failed. And then the coroner came and took our boy away.

Eric Huffman: Sam says it wasn't until their son's story made national news that the police took the case seriously and started treating it like a criminal investigation.

Sam Chapman: I think they learned on us that fentanyl poisonings, overdoses needed to be treated like a murder investigation until proven otherwise because of the prevalence of fentanyl deaths around the country. Right now fentanyl poisoning is the leading cause of death for adults 18 to 45 and 300 people are dying a day from fentanyl poisoning. So it's like a jumbo jet dropping from the sky every day full of people.

Social media acts as the rifle that shoots the bullet at us. They are allowed to operate with impunity under Section 230 of the Internet Decency Act, where they are treated like the phone company. And whatever happens on those platforms is not actionable from a civil perspective. I believe if we changed that and people were allowed to sue for their negligence, they would change behavior the next day.

Rania Mankarious: The fact that their beautiful, precious son, Sammy, he went on a social media platform, clicked on an ad, paid somebody less than a dollar, and got a pill sent to their house and took it and it's laced with fentanyl, he died instantly, that's the sto... It's impossible.

Eric Huffman: Why would a drug dealer go online and pay for an ad to sell a pill for less than a dollar?

Rania Mankarious: Well, they have an entire market of children buying things and prices go up as you become more dependent. These pills are cheap to get. They get them in bulk. They don't care if they're laced with fentanyl. It may kill you. It may not. Either way, you're going to become addicted. And they have a lifetime buyer. And what are the consequences? Social media companies are not going to share their information because they protect the privacy of their users.

Eric Huffman: What?

Rania Mankarious: "I made an ad. Oh, oh, I got in trouble. I'm going to delete that whole account. I'm going to start another one," which I think is what the dealer did in this case. So when Sammy died, it's like you have to have all the passwords for your child's phone because Apple's not going to unlock it. They're saying, well, Sammy's privacy, it's his phone.

Eric Huffman: A child?

Rania Mankarious: It's the child's phone, and you don't have right to access this stuff. So you as parents have to have the passwords to your kid's phone, to social media platforms. And I have countless stories of where this has saved children's lives because parents knew the passwords so they could figure out who the child was talking to, whom possibly abducted their children because they were able to get in to the child's social media accounts. That's a really important thing for parents to know.

Eric Huffman: So you're sparking some of my lesser angels here. I am a little bit of a conspiracy theorist sometimes, and I have to check this part of me because I know it's not right to be this way, but I'm paranoid about big tech. What's their angle? What's the game they're playing? The only thing I can think is they must be getting enough revenue, ad revenue from people like this that they don't want to cut off their nose to spite their face.

Rania Mankarious: You know, I don't know the answer, but it all comes down to eyeballs and revenues, in my opinion. When social media giants say, "Well, we can't censor, we can't figure out every ad," I'd say, "Well, I just lived through COVID where if you started to post and write the letters C-O-V, before you got to the I-D, a COVID pop up would come. So there's some mechanism to monitor communication online. I mean, there's something.

So when you see that there's exploitation of a child, the sale of pills, there should be a way for them to identify and monitor those type of posts. And they are working on it, they say. But ultimately, they haven't really had to be held accountable yet.

Sam Chapman: So the police told us that Snapchat or Snap Inc. doesn't help when someone dies and that the local police have given up asking. Social media companies' stock prices go up based on the number of users. So anything that they do to limit the number of users drives down their stock price, drives down the wealth of those executives.

So when we talk about maybe putting Bark, parent monitoring software on to Snapchat, Evan Spiegel, the CEO of Snapchat tells us there's a privacy concern. Well, obviously, privacy for children is up to the parents. It's not up to Snapchat to determine anything about their privacy. So I told the CEO of Snap Inc. that he's going to have to choose between dying a rich man and facing his God with all of these deaths on his conscience and facing the ultimate justice. Of course, just like with the police, once we were covered by the media and Sammy's death was covered by the media, Snap had no choice but to help. And so they did.

The police, with the help of the DEA, found the murderer of our son. They executed search warrants. They sat outside of his home. They presented the case to the Los Angeles district attorney, who is one of these that believes in social justice and he denied prosecution. So his murderer is still on the streets.

Well, after this happened to us, our cell phones blew up, letters were coming in to our home. We don't know how people found us, but lots of other parents were having the same experience. We had to create a venue for it, for all that energy. And we started a Facebook group called Parents for Safer Children. There are now over 13,000 members of that Facebook group. And it's really turned into a grief support group for families who have had some sort of death from social media or fentanyl poisoning.

Eric Huffman: How common is a story like Sammy's? Because I think it's easy to get riled up by anecdotal sort of stories. But is this a common thing?

Rania Mankarious: This is becoming extremely common. I was just speaking to a woman who has four friends who lost children because they purchased pills online that were laced with fentanyl just in a small circle of friends. I always say there are so many threats in the world. There's so many things. But if I had to narrow down the two biggest issues I'm worried about as a parent right now, it's online safety, sort of the big bucket of that, but it's also fentanyl-laced pills because they are making their way into a lot of places very easily.

And, you know, you reach a point where you tell people you love, Don't take anything from anybody. And listen, Little Jimmy, do you want to try Percocet? Like, why aren't we having honest conversations with our kids? Your friends are taking Percocet, so you want to try it? Okay, maybe we can't... We're not going to be able to get you Percocet. But are you in pain? Like you're lifting weights. Your friends say the muscles are...

Why aren't we talking to our kids about these things for them to even have the opportunity to say, well, mom, we lift all the time and now my shoulder hurts and I can't wrestle and I have a meat coming up. And somebody said if I took Percocet, it's going to go away. Well, no, let's go to the doctor. Let's figure out a solution. It's not always nefarious that they're trying to get high or do whatever. Sometimes they're just trying to solve a problem on their own.

I had girls say what I heard Adderall helps you lose weight. Okay. Well, let's talk about why you want to lose weight and let's find another method. Don't buy an Adderall pill online. Parents can find solutions to the craziest issues. I know that sounds strange, but we've got to get to that place at some point.

Eric Huffman: Sure. You write a lot about the hurdles facing parents that are trying to or want to get a better handle on these issues. What are some of those hurdles in your research that keep parents from getting a handle?

Rania Mankarious: Well, one parent think, like, I'm going to give them a rule. Like, you're just never allowed on Snapchat. You're not allowed to text. You're not allowed on Instagram. I mean, some are going to listen, but a lot of kids will say, Okay, I'm not going to be on Instagram because that's fine. My parents don't realize Pinterest is the new Instagram. Okay.

Eric Huffman: Wait? Is it really?

Rania Mankarious: Yeah. It's like for the younger generation. Yes.

Eric Huffman: Pinterest?

Rania Mankarious: Pinterest. Because they can create pinboards, they can post pictures and they get followers.

Eric Huffman: I thought that was for like stay at home-

Rania Mankarious: Moms crafts.

Eric Huffman: ...Yoga moms.

Rania Mankarious:  I know. Everything changes.

Eric Huffman: Wow.

Rania Mankarious: Kids say, "Mom, I'm not going to text. You didn't say I can't use WhatsApp. So I just texted on WhatsApp." So the biggest hurdle is bridging the gap between parents who don't understand the technology and think it can be conquered by the one "you're not allowed on Instagram or you're not allowed on... period".

Eric Huffman: Mission accomplished. Problems solved.

Rania Mankarious: I'm done. And kids who live in the space, it's how they talk, it's how they socialize, it's how they communicate, it's how they learn, it's how they get their grades, how they submit assignments now. It is a huge disconnect. So my goal was, how do we bridge and create overarching principles that the kids say, I can live with that and it makes sense. And parents now are free. And I don't need to know that now only fans is a thing. I don't want to know, actually. I don't need to know the latest thing because we've created these bridges that will last indefinitely.

Eric Huffman: Thanks to people like Rania, parents don't always have to fend for themselves while trying to keep their kids safe online. Even as the number of online threats facing our kids continues to increase, the number of helpful resources available to parents and families, teachers, and schools is also on the rise.

One example is the company started by our next guest, Brock Murphy. Two things inspired Brock to do something to help keep kids safe online. First, he witnessed one of his siblings being ruthlessly bullied online, and then in his 20s, he spent time in DC working on national security issues for the White House, where he got a peek behind the curtain at what's really going on with some of our most popular social media platforms. Like Rania Brock wants to help parents understand and better navigate the tech world.

Brock Murphy: People had questions and to me I thought they were really simple questions. Like, what is this app my kid is using or what device should I buy my child? But when more and more started to ask these questions, it made me realize there's an issue. And people are looking for the answers and looking for reliable places and trying to be engaged and aware and what their kids are doing online. But there's really no good perfect spot that they can turn to, which cause us to create Parent ProTech that we launched in September of 2022.

Eric Huffman: Congratulations-

Brock Murphy: Thank you.

Eric Huffman: ...on the launch of Parent ProTech. So big picture, what is it that you at Parent ProTech offer to parents and to families?

Brock Murphy: Parent Protect really is a platform to equip families, organizations, and students with the knowledge and the tools they need to navigate technology. So how we do that is we have specific lessons on technology and that could be social media, tech tag, Instagram, and so on to streaming platforms to YouTube, YouTube Kids, gaming consoles, dating apps, kind of the list goes on and on.

We unpack the platforms and we help the family understand exactly what they are. We help them understand what features there are as well, how to navigate them, and then what parental controls they have access to. And also a point of that is we monitor all of these platforms. So when changes happen, we get to alert the family of these new additions.

Eric Huffman: That's awesome. What I love about your approach and the reason I think it's so effective is because I'm moderately technologically savvy, but I'm not super adept at hopping on the Snapchat and knowing where to find the right settings. And if I just get a list of instructions like you can go to Snapchat's website or something and parents can see lists of like, Oh, here, here, here, here, here and click this and that, I zone out. I just can't even navigate it. And half the time the instructions you find are for whatever Snapchat looked like two updates ago.

And what you've done is for each platform you create these video tutorials that are step-by-step, super easy. That's one of the things that you and your company do. You just try to make it easily digestible for busy parents who are being outrun by the developers and by their own kids.

Brock Murphy: True. And kids are crazy good at tech. We recently started gearing content towards them to too kind of hone in on digital citizenship, digital footprint like what you post today could come back and haunt you down the road when you apply to medical school or your dream job. And when I was at the White House, there were teams of 20, 25 people scouring the entire world to see if someone who was either going to be nominated for something or someone like me who is a political appointee had posted or commented or done something wrong on social media. And a lot of kids don't realize that.

Eric Huffman: That's right. How interesting. I think most times we have these conversations, we think about predators coming after our kids or them seeing some illicit material. And that's definitely possible and a problem. But maybe the bigger, more universal problem is what you're talking about, where a kid can preemptively ruin their life or their opportunities by carelessly posting content that comes back to get them later.

Brock Murphy: And I think that's something that we as a community and we as parents should strive to let kids know about more. My dad would always say, Would you want your grandma to see it on a billboard and drive by it every day? And most of the time I said no. It's a big issue even if it's meant as a joke.

Eric Huffman: Yeah.

Rania Mankarious: Kids in today's culture generation are raised wanting to be consumed. They want eyeballs, They want to trend. They want attention. In social media, even gaming, whatever it is, gives them the platform and the outlet to do it. So they want to find a way to get eyeballs.

Eric Huffman: What does that equal for them, eyeballs? Is that value?

Rania Mankarious: Acceptance, value, popularity, accomplishment. And it's all empty. But that's what it means to them.

Eric Huffman: And it never ends.

Rania Mankarious: And it never ends. And look, all of these platforms allow you to connect to anyone, anywhere at any time, and do anything. So that's the bigger thing. We've got to be talking to your kids. And look, I'll say every single parent at least one time during the week is going to say, "Hey, how is that test on Wednesday? Do you have that math test? I mean, that's normal. But very few of us say, Did you see that TikTok video? It was hysterical. What's the latest channel? We don't talk about it. It's like this taboo thing.

My whole thing is you've got to start... Google. Google trending issues and start having positive conversations with your kids so you can layer the crazy ones. And I'll tell you the craziest one I saw this week. In Florida, a 12-year-old girl stole her dad's pickup truck, got her 14-year-old friend, drove en route to Louisiana, the 12-year-old driving with her 14-year-old friend so they could meet a man they had been talking to online.

Eric Huffman: Wow.

Rania Mankarious: The only thing that saved these girls is they stopped in Alabama and they saw their picture on a TV screen at the convenience store or the gas station. And they thought, this is serious and we better call our parents. But why were they going to meet a man in Louisiana that they met online?

Brock Murphy: One that we covered recently is the rise in older children, high school students on dating apps.

Eric Huffman: Whoa.

Brock Murphy: I was kind of scared to even put it up just because I know that can scare so many families. But really when you combine kind of the nature of these platforms, what they're built for and you combine that with children sneaking around their families and their friends to try to meet up with random people whose profile they saw online, it creates a really scary equation that could lead to higher cases of trafficking, as we've seen sometimes too many times, as well as kind of sextortion. And what do these people do with, you know, some of these photos that kids send to each other? So that's a big one right now that we're trying to shed a little light on, especially for those families with older children.

Eric Huffman: Well, how are children ending up on dating apps? Help me with that one.

Brock Murphy: You can just like a lot of these platforms, like how easy it is for kids to scroll a little bit higher when they're putting in their date of birth-

Eric Huffman: Simple as that?

Brock Murphy: Simple as that. And just how easy it is for these platforms to allow kids to lie and then take advantage of whatever-

Eric Huffman: So for Tinder or some of these dating apps, there's no other verification required. You don't have to put in a credit card number or anything that would verify your age. It's just, hey, it's an honor system.

Brock Murphy: Honor system.

Eric Huffman: Seriously, I get chills. Man, every time I talk to people like you, my day gets a little worse. That's so scary to me. So you got children on dating apps, putting their most adult-looking pictures up to try and get by and to get attention or company or, you know, not feel alone in the world. I mean, it's not hard to understand why a kid, an older teenage kid would want to be on those apps.

But it is hard to understand why the apps aren't doing more to make sure that doesn't happen. That maybe is sort of the missing link in my understanding of this is just where is the corporate sense of accountability or where is the corporate desire for public trust? And why isn't there more accountability when it comes to these corporations, you know, putting up the right boundaries? It doesn't seem like they would be that hard for them to do.

Brock Murphy: These companies aren't going to change on their own. That's another piece of what we're trying to build out is that accountability and that bringing the combined voices of families all across the country forward to legislators in D.C. and try to enact some change to really change the tide of what we're seeing right now and make these companies prioritize safety of children rather than safety of their bank account.

Eric Huffman: All three of our guests are frustrated by the lack of corporate accountability on the part of social media companies. That's why we so desperately need organizations like Parent ProTech and Crime Stoppers that are empowering parents to protect their kids and educating kids to protect themselves. In her book,

"The Online World, What You Think You Know and What You Don't: 4 Critical Tools for Raising Kids in the Digital Age", Rania dispels the most common myths that she hears repeated time and time again by parents.

Rania Mankarious: The biggest myth is that you can keep your kids safe by keeping them off technology. That's not going to happen. It's just not going to happen. The second myth is like, Well, even if they are on the social media platforms, they're going to protect them somehow. They're going to make sure my 13-year-old doesn't see pornography. Well, no, that's not true. They're going to feed your 13-year-old whatever your 13-year-old wants to see.

And there are studies. Wall Street Journal did an incredible study on this very issue with a 13-year-old bot that they had created. And by the time they were done having the 13-year-olds search for what it was interested in, TikTok and it's For You page fed that 13-year-old 569 videos on drugs and over 100 videos on pornography.

Eric Huffman: What?

Rania Mankarious: And when Wall Street Journal went back to TikTok and said, It was a 13-year-old, granted, it's a bot, they said, We're not the parents. That's a user. We give it what it wants to see.

Eric Huffman: That sounds like a drug dealer — things a drug dealer would say. Seriously. That's a user-

Rania Mankarious: Seriously, it's not my problem. I give it what it want. My kids deserve online privacy. They absolutely do not. I keep saying-

Eric Huffman: That's one of the myths?

Rania Mankarious: Yeah. Like my kids deserve privacy. I don't want to be the over-intrusive parent. I'm like, You know what? Have a rule. Get your kid a diary, talk about the 80s from 1985. Have your kid write whatever they want in the diary and you don't open the diary and put it under the bed.

Eric Huffman: There's your privacy.

Rania Mankarious: There's your privacy. But when you're on the World Wide Web talking to anyone about anything, sharing, that's not the space for privacy. You know, kids would say, well, I can handle at the end of the day, I really can handle what I'm seeing. No, you can't.

Eric Huffman: No one can.

Rania Mankarious: And mental health experts who've been studying this will say depression has gone up by triple-digit percentages, self-harm has gone up, suicidal ideation and suicide because kids cannot ultimately handle stuff they're not mature enough to handle.

Eric Huffman: Right. Whatever the opposite is of the parent who says, My kids deserve privacy online, that's me. I'm very vigilant. I scroll through everything on my kids' phones every night, and their phones stay in my office at night. But they're 13 and 15 now and they know Daddy scrolls their phones, so they're always one step ahead of me.

Rania Mankarious: Oh, yeah.

Eric Huffman: And a lot of times I just don't know what... It's like a crime ring and some kind of outdated police force and they're way ahead of me. But I'm going to stay vigilant. That doesn't keep me from being vigilant. But I don't know how to monitor or police Snapchat.

Rania Mankarious: My whole theory is, why can't your kids have Snapchat? Of course, they can. It's just we have to give them the tools that they agree with that makes them navigate and use it wisely. The ad for which you want to buy Xanax, Adderall, Tylenol, you know, whatever, Adderall, decline. Decline. Or the "Hey, send me a nude pic. Everybody's doing it. What's wrong with you?" Decline. Decline.

I know who I am. I know who I'm going to be online. I know that what I do is going to stay with me indefinitely. We're constantly talking about how that's evolving and I know how I'm going to operate. There's no reason why they can't do that, because they can.

Eric Huffman: And that gets to, I think, the best part of your book, the whole thing's great, but it's not all like just naming problems, which would be an easier book to write. But you're very solutions-oriented.

Rania Mankarious: Well, I wanted a solution, really, that kids would buy into, and so I had to speak their language. And I worked a lot with kids in developing this. So number one is we've got to sit down and ask our kids why they're online. And that means everything. Why are they chatting, why are they gaming, why are they social media-ing, and what do they want to accomplish? Because that's going to shape who they are in this. Ultimately you want to create a brand for your child and you're going to think, That's horrific. That's awful.

Eric Huffman: Like your child's a product.

Rania Mankarious: Yes.

Eric Huffman: It's not what you're saying.

Rania Mankarious: It's not because these companies know why they're there and they know what their message is and they don't deviate. So if our kids can know why they're there and what they want to achieve, and I don't blame them if they say I want a public page, I think I'm a talented soccer player, I love it.

Eric Huffman: Sure.

Rania Mankarious: Great. If your mom and dad agree, I've no problem. But they need to fine-tune who they will be in the space. And by doing even that simple thing, it starts to turn all the gray into a very targeted road for them. I don't really want to like that post or share that post because it kind of goes against my personal brand. Like all of a sudden, they have a roadmap and it grows with them because who they are, why they're there, what they want to achieve is going to change over time. So we have these conversations as they grow.

Eric Huffman: But what I like about it, I didn't like it at first, to be honest, because it grated me somehow. The word brand is a little bit grating, but what I like, I think, is the best way to talk about it with kids. Not only because that's a word they get and it makes them feel important.

Rania Mankarious: Yeah.

Eric Huffman: And what they're putting out is important. But the reason I think it's so great is because it actually delineates between online perception and real life.

Rania Mankarious: Yes.

Eric Huffman: And a brand is just a... you're just managing perception, right?

Rania Mankarious: Mm-hmm.

Eric Huffman: You're just saying this is who we want to be seen as and that's who your online persona should be.

Rania Mankarious: Exactly.

Eric Huffman: It's not who you really are. And in some ways, teaching your kids to see it that way is to say, look, you are who you really are in real life or whatever. But then you project this image to the world and that's fine. Everyone does. We get dressed the way we do in the morning for a reason. It's all about brand management in a way, because there are certain things we want to be known for and a lot of things we don't want to be known for.

Rania Mankarious: Right.

Eric Huffman: So you create a filter for what should be posted, what should be liked, commented on, and said in social media spaces. I just think it's brilliant.

Rania Mankarious: I'm so glad.

Eric Huffman: So defining your brand is tool number one. The second one is, define your community. Tell us about that.

Rania Mankarious: So depending on why you're there and what your point is, well, that's going to decide your community. You might have a really small community because you're a private account and one which also has some loopholes in it, or you might cast a really wide net. Do you want a public profile? You're in a lot of spaces. Great. But we just have to be thinking about who's consuming our content because these people in time are going to want to reach out to you. There's your best friend, there's your boyfriend, there's your girlfriend, there's your parents, your aunts, your uncles, there's your teachers, your coach, there's people who see you as a potential target, there's scammers, there's predators, there's the friend today, the enemy tomorrow, the student that's envious of you from the other school.

When you do that exercise with kids, they'll say, you know, I never really thought about the fact that in the 200 views of my video, one or two might be people who really don't like me. I mean, I never even really thought about that. So if we can get them to think about the net they're casting and who's consuming, it helps them sort of put a guard up a little bit. And that, I think, is important for kids.

Eric Huffman: That's awesome. So that's a very clear goal and I think one that everyone can get on board with. The third is developing an exit strategy. Now, what do you mean?

Rania Mankarious: This is the hardest two chapters of the book to write because I needed kids to have an escape plan. So I divided it between things that externally come at them online and things that brew internally. So externally, "Hey, buy this pill. Hey, take a nude photo." By the way, a majority of kids are being asked for a nude picture. That's like a big thing. Challenge. There's this challenge at school. Go ruin the toilets. You know, whatever the challenges are. Break the windshield wiper of your neighbor's car.

All these things that come at them externally versus the things that brew internally. They're home alone. No one's even talking to them, but they're looking at the social media posts and they say, "Oh my, this is the third weekend in a row, all my friends went out and didn't include me," or "I'm so jealous of little Lindsay. She's so pretty. She has the best body. She has the best clothes and I have nothing. I have nothing." Things brew internally that are so significant over time. Kids take their own lives and that is not an exaggeration.

So I needed kids, whether it's something threatening them externally or thoughts that are brewing internally, I need them to know these things exist so they can recognize it when it comes either externally or brewing internally and they can block it. They have a way to exert.

Eric Huffman: Right. And there's more to it than just scrolling past or ignoring it or whatever. There's more to be done.

Rania Mankarious: Yes.

Eric Huffman: You can teach your kids to be more assertive in terms of actually following through with the block and a report and tell somebody else, tell me, as your parent, about this. And I think that's an important strategy. I tell my kids that. You know, anytime they're in large crowds or groups of people, it's like, always know what you would do in case of emergency. And that's a very similar thing but in the online world. Okay. So number four is fun. Pose like a celebrity. Tell us about that one.

Rania Mankarious: The one that gets me in the most trouble. So I was actually in a high school class when I really decided I was going to formalize this. But I said, guys, I want to do an experiment with you. I said, "I want you guys to pose like celebrities and I want to tell you what I mean. The kids were like, "Yeah, finally this woman's making sense. She's finally interesting" because we've been talking about online safety.

I said, "Pull out your phone if you have Instagram." And the teacher allows them to go on Instagram. That's fun. "Yay, huhu, it's fun. So I said, "Pick your favorite person, celebrity, sports person, music person, influencer." They did. I said, "Okay, I want you to raise your hand, I want you to start looking through their feet. I want you to raise your hand the moment you can get me a home address." You see these kids say, Okay. And they start going through their phone, going through, and they say, "Oh, it's so weird. No, I can't really get a home address or even a home number." They say they can't do it, I say, "Oh, that's interesting."

I said, "Okay, well, usually these people are pretty wealthy and they have the best cars, right? Just raise your hand the second you get me a license plate number." And without fail I have somebody say, "Oh, my gosh, I even know what post I'm going to. Okay, give me a second." They go through, they go through, They go through and they say, "Oh, that's so weird. He's standing in front of the g-wagon but it's so weird I never notice he's blocking the license plate." I said, "Oh, that's very interesting." I say, Okay.

I said, "Well, usually they represent a company. What is the business? I just want to see Taylor Swift pull into her parking lot. I want to see J.Lo pull into her parking lot. Just what is..." And they'll look through and they'll say, "We can't find it. That's so weird."

And what I talk to the kids about is what they fail to see is that these celebrities that they admire, what they fail to see, though, is as these people are sharing content, they've made it impossible for you to find them in real-time. They've made their physical, personal security their number one priority, not just they, the celebrities, but they have entire teams that make sure you cannot find them in real-time. We should be following that.

Now let's emulate maybe not their choices in life and... I'm not talking about morals. I'm talking about their choices to be safe. I'm not saying don't post. I'm not saying don't be on the space. I'm saying respect yourself. Protect yourself as much as these people that you emulate do and keep yourself physically safe.

Eric Huffman: It's a tough line to walk sometimes.

Rania Mankarious: It is.

Eric Huffman: I appreciate you helping us walk it. And I think one of the reasons you're so driven to this is because you've seen what happens when the worst-case scenarios unfold or when parents are underinformed or unprepared. Could you talk a little bit about what you've seen in terms of these stories locally, even here in Houston with kids getting caught up in things?

Rania Mankarious: There's so many stories, unfortunately. Houston is seeing an unbelievable problem with the extortion, the blackmail of young boys. So I have schools calling me saying, what do we do about this? They'll be gaming with somebody just chatting, they'll be gaming with them over time. And then the person on the other line will say, "Hey, what do you look like right now? Just take a picture, but don't send me anything weird. Don't be weird." And so the boys are like, "Okay."

By the way, our kids communicate via pictures. They text and do a photo of the ceiling. They send pictures very commonly. They FaceTime. That's how they talk. So when these people say, send me a picture of, whatever you look like right now, the boys do that, they're talking to a predator who then manipulates the photo, makes it look sexualized, and then blackmails the boys. And we've had kids in the Houston area give birthday gift cards, ask friends for money, thousands of dollars to try to get themselves out of a situation-

Eric Huffman: Oh my gosh.

Rania Mankarious: ...that they got into because they sent the person a photo. The person didn't steal a photo off Instagram. The person established, "I have an actual connection to you. You sent me a private picture. No one's going to believe you when... I manipulated and made it look sexual. But no one's going to believe you. We obviously have a connection." These problems become so overwhelming for these kids and it's too much for us to ignore. And the thought of like, it's not our family, it's not our house, it could never be our kid, that's a huge one of the big seven myths. It can always be our kids because the online world doesn't discriminate. They just need contact. That's all they need—contact. And that's what the digital space provides.

Eric Huffman: And as good as you think your kids are, and we all want to think our kids at the best teenage years are highly vulnerable, susceptible years as far as self-esteem goes and self-image. These people know what they're doing.

Rania Mankarious: Yes.

Eric Huffman: And if they victimize our kids, our kids won't be their first victim. No. You know, it's a program that works in some ways.

Rania Mankarious: The FBI said on any given day there's 500,000, 750,000 predators online, seasoned predators targeting anywhere from ten to more children. So this is their business. And then you have the relentless abuse of just peers that have nothing else to do but bully, and they can be very creative with it. So it runs the gamut.

Eric Huffman: So the lingering question here for me and a lot of parents, you still send your kids to public schools, you still have your kids somewhat connected in different ways online, you haven't yet bought a ranch in the middle of central Texas and gone off the grid? And you don't homeschool your kids yet. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Rania Mankarious: No. No.

Eric Huffman: You still have them out and about. What keeps you doing what you do and having them out in the world knowing what you know?

Rania Mankarious: I think education is not there to make you paranoid, it's there to make you feel powerful. I believe that we live in a broken world. There's depravity. There's sin. There's... Call it what you want. There's no way to stop that. But there is a way to arm yourself and have hope and be encouraged and go out there and do the best you can do and be a lifeline for others while you're protecting yourself. And I think that's so powerful. I don't feel paranoid or scared. I might go do more now. Go out. Go to the school. Do this. Why not? You know. You know what to look for. You know what to not do. So go experience everything.

Brock Murphy: For me, I kind of rushed to Proverbs 22:6 that says, Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it. And part of it is putting on the armor of God in a way and being prepared for whatever comes next. For a lot of the younger generation and all generations right now, technology is at the forefront and in on our minds constantly.

Eric Huffman: What I love about the verse you chose is just that word "should". What a big word that is. I mean, the idea that there is a way a child should go is itself an indication of objective reality, which the internet seeks often. And social media and everything about our culture these days seems to sort of challenge the idea that there is any should for any of us at all. But that you're insisting and I'm 100% on board with you, there is a way a child should go.

And I think it's something really all of us can agree on. On a fundamental level, a child should be safe, a child should be protected, a child should have every opportunity to thrive and flourish and grow. And all of these "shoulds" really are things we should be, as the church, as parents, as schools, individuals, we should all take ownership of that should. That there is something we should be fighting for on behalf of our children. And just throwing up our hands and saying, "I'll never understand Yik Yak." Or "I'll just trust my children. And because I don't want to be a helicopter parent, I'll just let them do what they want and hope for the best." The vigilance is what I'm hearing come through. The call to vigilance. We're not trying to be overly controlling. You're not suggesting that we become some sort of overlords or big brothers or anything like that. But we must be vigilant and looking out for our kids in terms of their online existence and expression.

Brock Murphy: Big time. And how easy with technology it is to fall. And having access to pornography and other lustful things and the ability to tear other people down in only a few keystrokes. I think it's important to kind of link arms together and really go forward and promote the good together.

Eric Huffman: I want to thank Sam Chapman, Rania Mankarious, and Brock Murphy for their contributions to this important episode. I encourage all of you to read Raina's book, The Online World, What You Think You Know and What You Don't: 4 Critical Tools for Raising Kids in the Digital Age. And I hope you'll head over to parentprotech.com l to take advantage of the one-month free trial that Brock has offered to all Maybe God listeners. Just simply click on the link in our show notes to take advantage of that offer. Whether you've got kids at home or not, we all have a responsibility to make the world a safer place for the most vulnerable people among us. So as Brock said, let's do everything we can to link arms and to promote the good together for the sake of the next generation.

Julie Mirlicourtois: This episode of Maybe God was produced by Julie Mirlicourtois and Eric and Geovanna Huffman. Our editors are Shannon Stefan and Justin Mayer and the director of all of our full-length YouTube videos is Mark Calver.

For more information about Maybe God and to sign up for exclusive updates and content, head to Maybegodpodcast.com today. And don't forget to follow and engage with us on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. Thanks for listening, everyone.