Investigators said the seventh grader had been secretly messaging with David Eisenhauer, an 18-year-old Virginia Tech student, on the social media app Kik. They said Nicole sneaked out of her parents’ house one night last month to meet up with Eisenhauer and never returned home.
She was missing for three days until her body was found 80 miles away. Eisenhauer is charged with abducting and killing Nicole, and an alleged female accomplice is charged with helping plan the crime and illegally disposing of the victim's body. Neither has entered a plea.
The reaction to Nicole’s case has become part of a national conversation about girls and social media.
Nicole’s family believes she turned to social media to find acceptance after being a victim of severe school bullying.
“She had a huge boy crush kind of thing,” her mother Terry told ABC News. “But in the same sense, it was kind of innocent, you know? Because she was still a child, you know? And all she wanted was just the attention… She wanted to feel like she could fit in with the boys, and that the boys loved her and thought she was pretty. And, you know, just like any other little girl.”
In a statement to ABC News, Kik said, “We have zero tolerance for any behavior that potentially affects the safety of our users. As well as our 24/7 support team, we offer blocking and reporting tools to allow users to flag unwanted content or contact. We are also reviewing all aspects of safety across the company… to further address the concerns of parents.”
But Nicole’s story has become a cautionary tale about the dangers of secret messaging apps and their anonymous users.
“It’s so much a part of their culture,” she told Couric. “I mean I think it’s probably impossible if you have a teenage daughter right now that she doesn’t know what Kik is.”
“It’s known for a place where you sext,” Sales continued. “I mean it’s not set up that way… but it’s like, that’s how kids use it. And there’s even, it’s even become a verb, ‘want to Kik?’ … And that means ‘do you want to exchange nudes?’”
But those secret apps are just part of the story. In her new book, “American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers,” Sales explores the dangers of coming of age in a world ruled by social media.
“One of the first conversations that I had with some girls in Los Angeles really set the tone for the whole book to me,” she said, adding that one girl told her “Social media is destroying our lives.”
“And I said, ‘So why don’t you just go off it?’ and she said, ‘Because then I would have no life,’” Sales said.
Sales said she found a culture of young lives playing out on various platforms that promote negative self-esteem, instant and sometimes harsh judgment and harmful behavior like cyberbullying, something that 13-year-old Carrie said she experienced.
But the friendship took a turn and Carrie decided they should stop communication. That’s when she says the boy and one of his friends, another girl, began sending her hurtful messages.
“One day I started getting messages, nasty messages, calling me ugly,” she said. “He was just basically trying to put me down and I had no idea why. And he was giving other people my number. …They were saying things like you’re ugly and cursing me out when they had never even met me or known me at all… And I was really scared by it.”
Carrie’s mother Sheryl decided to do something about it. She found out who the boy and his friend were and called their parents.
“So she promised me it would never happen again,” she continued. “That she would talk to this kid’s parents… and thankfully that did put an end to it.”
Sales said cyber bullying is an “incredibly common” problem, and that social media has become a popularity contest where teens gain validation from the pictures they post and the number of likes they receive. She said it’s having a major impact on how teenage girls view themselves. In her interviews for her book, Sales said she often found that girls would spend hours taking pictures of themselves and manipulating the images.
Eighteen-year-old Olivia said if she posted a photo on Instagram that got, say, 150 likes, she would think it was a good photo, but if she posted a photo that she thought was good but didn’t receive a lot of likes, she would worry about whether she should take it down.
She then showed how she could change her appearance in a photo through the various photo-tuning apps she had on her phone.
“I can whiten my teeth… you can just make yourself look more slender… honestly I can even change the color of my hair if I wanted to,” she said.
But Olivia said she tries to use these apps sparingly.
“If I broke out… or sometimes my face gets really oily then I’ll do that, but I don’t reshape my body,” she said.
Sales believes this behavior can contribute to anxiety and depression in teens.
“Think about it,” she said. “If what you are thinking about is, ‘Do I look hot? Am I going to get likes on this photo?’ … I mean, this is like the constant kind of thoughts that are being raised in teenage girls’ minds through their use of social media. It’s not soothing. It’s not something that produces a feeling of well being or security.”
Both Olivia and Carrie’s mothers said talking to their children about their social media behavior was critically important.
“Sit down and say these are the rules,” said Raquel, Olivia’s mother. “Basically your teenager wants to know that they are part of the conversation. That it’s not a dictatorship. That this is what you’re doing and that’s it.”
Carrie’s mother Sheryl agreed, and said it’s better to talk to your kids and educate them about the dangers of being on social media than to take it away from them entirely.
“You need to be smart,” she said. “I think if you completely just say to your child, ‘You’re not going on any social media, I’m not letting you communicate,’ you’re creating a kid who’ll either sneak behind your back and do it, and will be less trusting of you, with other situations down the road because they feel you’re not supportive of them.”