Even before the page has fully loaded, the popular Facebook group "Teen Dating and Flirting" looks like a something straight out of some parental nightmare. It has the full teen trifecta - sexting, cyberbullying and strangers - in one unmoderated public forum that anyone, of any age, can access.
The group, and many thousands of others like it, is less about dating than rating: Teens post pouty, suggestive selfies, which other teens or adults pretending to be teens grade; the comments then invariably devolve into either requests for further contact ("add me," "send nudes") or flat-out cyberbullying ("barely a 4," "gross," "ew").
While teen dating groups, both public and closed, have been common on Facebook for years, the genre has come to light this week for tragic reasons: 13-year-old Nicole Lovell was reportedly bullied by the group only weeks before her January disappearance. On January 1, she posted a selfie to the forum with the caption "cute or nah." Of the 304 responses, most were overtly vicious. That's sparked a wave of outrage and concern from parents, educators and advocates.
"The teen dating sites on FB needs to be removed," posted Help Save The Next Girl, a Virginia-based advocacy group. "Please help us locate and pressure Facebook to remove."
It's unclear why Facebook has allowed these groups to exist for this long. (A Facebook spokesman did not immediately return The Washington Post's request for explanation.) Many of the publicly viewable teen dating groups flagrantly flout the site's community standards: Aside from the routine harassment and borderline hate speech, "Teen Dating and Flirting" is also littered with explicit pornography. It's unclear if the subjects of all those photos are adults.
Unless a user flags a post, however, it's likely that it would never come to the site's attention. Like most large social networks, Facebook relies almost entirely on users to police each other and proactively report content that violates site standards. In other words, if 18,000 kids are posting porn in a private group and none of them reports it as abuse, that content may never come to Facebook's attention. If one person posts a photo of a nude statue, however, and a single friend flags it for showing "too much bare skin," that photo could, and indeed has been, suspended.
Not all of Facebook's teen dating groups are inherently evil, however. In the comments of the infamous "Teen Dating and Flirting," a boy named Jordan has been pushing his alternative: a closed group he created called "Official :) Teens Only Group (13-19)," which bans adults, bullying, self-harm and anything "RELATED TO SEXUAL STUFF." It includes the number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline in its sidebar, and promises to weed out anyone who's older than 19.
The idea, one administrator told The Post via Facebook chat, is that teens can connect and discuss things online that they may not be able to discuss in person.
"A lot of people don't like people in person so they use alternatives like Facebook," he wrote. "It helps with social anxiety kinda."
Parents' great fear, of course, is that in many cases these groups increase teens' anxieties -- to say nothing of the potential harms they expose themselves to when they share pictures with strangers. And in the wake of the news that Nicole Lovell frequented teen dating groups, some are asking why Facebook hasn't acted to remove them.
On Sunday, the advocacy organization Justice for Children Without Voices reported "Teen Dating and Flirting" as a violation of Facebook's standards, and received notification that Facebook would suspend it within 24 hours. Since then, 28 hours have passed - and the page is still up.
"Parents please keep your eye out for other groups like this one," one mother wrote. "We've got to keep an eye out on what our children are doing and who they're talking to. I can't stress this enough."
© 2016 The Washington Post