They had been chatting for 18 months before they finally decided to meet up. But Brandon wasn't a floppy-haired teenager — he was a middle-aged, balding paedophile named Gary Francis Newman, who lured Carly to the beach, attacked her, suffocated her in the sand, then dumped her body in the water.
Newman has since been given a 29-year sentence without parole for killing the young teenage girl, but Carly's mother, Sonya Ryan, wants to make sure that other children who chat to people online don't find themselves in the same dangerous situation.
Following the horrific loss of her daughter, Sonya created an app called THREAD, which is hoped will help children and young adults find safety if they end up in risky situations after meeting people online.
It uses GPS tracking to allow users to check in their location and to communicate to friends or family that they are okay. If they find themselves in a dangerous situation, they can click on the "Alert" button, which automatically calls 000 and sends out their location details.
After downloading and going through the THREAD child safety app, it got me thinking about the time I met someone in an online chat room and whether or not I would have used such an app. I too was around 15 years old; it was the late '90s. We'd met on Pirch, one of those ancient online chat rooms that my two best friends and I would log in to in secret after school.
"asl?" a message popped up in a new window. "Age, sex, location?"
"16/f/qld," my 15-year-old self lied. "U?"
My friends and I giggled at the thought of chatting to a real-life teenage boy as one of our mums made us dinner from the kitchen down the hall.
After weeks of chatting at the same time after school in the same chat room, my friends and I decided to ask "17/m/qld" for his phone number. After a couple of months of talking — both online and on the phone — we ended up meeting in person. My two friends came for moral support and to make sure he was who he said he was: a 17-year-old, poetry-writing bass player. And thankfully he was. But what would I have done if he wasn't?
Looking through the THREAD safety app, which is incredibly easy to use and simple in its design, I wonder if I would have used it as a 15-year-old, hormonal, boy-crazy teenager. If that technology was available then, yes, absolutely.
Even then I knew what I was doing could go horribly wrong, but I did it anyway, with just the support of my two 15-year-old girlfriends. If you have teenage, girl- or boy-crazy children, it might be worth shoving these apps under their noses, because, as Carly's mum Sonya would no doubt tell you, it could save their life.
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