In the months before her death, Nicole Lovell shared widely and openly online, reaching out to strangers and friends to share the highs and lows of her life.
Her posts included inside jokes with friends and talk about crushes on boys. She shared photos of her pets and family, music she was listening to and her fears that no one cared about her.
Whether the Virginia Tech freshman charged with her abduction and death preyed on those vulnerabilities in order to meet Nicole, 13, is unclear, but the potential has prompted worry from parents and renewed concerns about the role social media plays in teens’ lives.
Her father, David Lovell, told “CBS Evening News” he and his wife, Nicole Lovell’s stepmother, were concerned about the Blacksburg Middle School student’s involvement on online teen dating sites because of a potential scenario like this and said they had addressed it with her.
“I guess we didn’t do enough,” Lovell said.
Police haven’t said publicly how David Eisenhauer, 18, met Nicole, only that they were “acquainted” before she disappeared last week. Nicole’s mother, Tammy Weeks, has said investigators told her the pair met online, on “some off-the-wall site I never heard of.”
One of Nicole Lovell’s neighbors told The New York Times that the day before she went missing, the teen showed her daughter messages on Kik where she had made plans to see an 18-year-old. Kik is an app where users can instant message with relative anonymity.
Just as it is for adults, social media is an important way for teens to maintain relationships, said Amanda Lenhart, who studied teen social media use for the Pew Research Center and now works as a researcher at the Data & Society research institute. For adolescents, social media is where a “huge part of socializing takes place” and often a place where teens get feedback that shapes the way they view themselves and their friendships.
“The thing we need to keep in mind is that, social media is social first and foremost,” Lenhart said. “It’s about talking with and communicating with other people, and it’s about presenting yourself to them and then about getting an assessment of that presentation. And I think a lot of times teens, particularly young ones, just do that in the most raw form.”
Making friends online through social media is very common among teens, Lenhart said. In one of Pew’s recent national surveys, 57 percent of teens said they’d made a new friend online, typically through social media. Teens also use social media to find romantic relationships, Lenhart said, but much less frequently — only about 8 percent of teens.
Lovell’s mother told The Washington Post her daughter often cried and asked to stay home from school because of bullying. On an Instagram account, Lovell posted photos showing tear-stained faces and shared when she was crying, comments that friends responded to and initiated offline conversations.
“I feel better now thanks,” Nicole posted about two months ago after one of those times.
A lot of teens “wear their hearts on their sleeves,” when it comes to social media, said Bob Faris, a sociology professor at the University of California-Davis who studies teen behavior online, specifically bullying and other types of conflict between teens.
Those kinds of posts — often somewhat vague — usually have a meaning that’s not immediately understood by parents and adults but is understood by friends, he said. Teens aren’t necessarily expecting any kind of response — they’re just sharing their feelings and emotions, he said.
“I’m not sure the motivations are to get therapeutic help from an empathetic friend as much as they are cries for help,” Faris said.
When teens don’t get responses or feedback, it can affect how they feel about themselves, Faris said. Teens who don’t get the kind of affirmation their friends get might turn elsewhere for validation and support, he said, which might explain Nicole’s participation in a Facebook group called “Teen Dating and Flirting.” A spokeswoman for the company declined to comment on the group, but the page was shut down by the social media company on Tuesday.
A few weeks ago, Nicole posted a selfie to the group, asking “Cute or nah.” Many of the 304 comments in response were negative: “You’re very round,” one person said. “And no not cute,” another said.
Such behavior is concerning partly because it indicates teens feel like they’re missing a support system in real life, said Nancy Hans, the director of the Prevention Council of Roanoke County.
“What is missing in their lives that they are feeling they have to go somewhere where they don’t even know who they’re talking to?” Hans asked. “Why do you want to go where you can’t see someone’s face to feel engaged and wanted and needed?”
Hans said she counsels parents that they need to have serious conversations with their children when giving them a phone or permission to join online social media apps. According to Pew data from 2012, about 78 percent of adolescents 12 to 17 years old have a cellphone. Hans suggested having children draft a contract with their parents about how those devices and applications will be used.
“That phone becomes an incredible open door to the world,” Hans said.
Hans said she tells parents repeatedly it’s “OK to say no.” Jamie Garst, an assistant principal at Andrew Lewis Middle School in Salem, said he tells parents the same thing.
“It’s OK to set boundaries,” Hans said. “It’s OK to help your child wait for things.”
Garst said he tells his students they also have a responsibility to step up when they see classmates engaging in risky behavior, which is what some of Nicole Lovell’s friends appear to have tried to do in comments posted on her social media accounts.
Among teens, there’s often a reluctance to “be labeled as a snitch,” but Garst said he tries to convey to them that the consequences of not telling a trusted adult can be serious.
“You need to tell someone,” Garst said. “I tell kids, you can get mad at me today, but at least we’ll be able to solve the problem and go on to tomorrow.”
Roanoke Times staff writer Jacob Demmitt and The Washington Post contributed to this report.