It’s a scenario that would chill a parent’s blood to the temperature of liquid nitrogen. You intercept a message aimed at one of your children. It’s not about the latest gossip at school, it’s a sinister request from a sinister, faceless being floating around in cyberspace to “meet me for sex.”

We’re not talking about a movie plot or something that happened hundreds of miles across the United States. Something that could’ve gotten to that level happened recently on Sand Mountain, in Boaz.

A Madison County man — a self-described “sex addict” — was sending out messages through an app called Whisper, looking for targets.

One of those messages got through to a Boaz man, who engaged the messenger in conversation. The messenger suggested that the man “swap out” his daughters for sex.

Like anyone with a molecule of sense and decency, the man immediately contacted police and a sting was set up. The messenger arrived in Boaz expecting to have his desires sated in disgusting fashion; instead he met folks with guns and handcuffs, and was taken to jail.

So the system worked — but consider how easily it could’ve failed?

What if a sexual predator had connected with a young person and not a parent? Would immature curiosity have prevailed? Kids have been sneaking off without their parents’ knowledge for years; the potential ramifications are a lot more dire today.

Kids also have kept things from their parents for years, but again technology has changed the landscape. Whisper — a social networking app — allows its users to post messages and share videos and photos with anonymity. Its website describes it as “the best place to discover secrets about you.”

Multiple similar networking apps are floating around, also offering anonymity and a way for users to mask their bad intentions. Kids who have had cellphones in their hands since before they could walk can operate them — especially the security controls — with the fluency and flying fingers of Rachmaninoff playing a piano concerto.

We’re not saying these apps are inherently bad, mind you. We’re saying they’re dangerous in the hands of people whose moral compasses are still in the development stage and who are vulnerable to sweet-sounding entreaties from people seeking to do vile things.

So what should parents do here?

How about being parents?

“That’s not so easy,” say you who are working multiple jobs to survive and struggle to summon up the time and energy to keep proper tabs on your kids, and for whom cellphones have become de facto baby-sitters.

We also understand the desire to give kids a little more freedom — some slack on the rope — as they get older.

It’s not that complicated, however.

Educate yourselves on the apps that can be misused.

Know what apps are on your kids’ phones. Delete the ones you’re uncomfortable with (it doesn’t matter who’s paying for the service; as long as they live in your house, your rules prevail) and make sure the security settings are set to the strongest levels on apps that remain.

Don’t be afraid to monitor what your kids are doing on their phones. (They’ll whine about “spying,” but refer to our comment about the rules.)

Most importantly, communicate with your kids and educate them about the trolls and the vermin hiding in the darkest corners of cyberspace.

It’s easy to lose sight of reality when you step into the digital world. Make sure their feet remain on actual ground.

 

A version of this editorial first appeared in The Gadsden Times.