In the age of social media, connecting has never been easier. The rewards of social media are numerous, but we often overlook the risks.
In our last post about gaming and grooming, we explained the connection between connecting anonymously through gaming sites and how predators hide behind false identities to groom children. It is shocking and utterly repulsive, but that is not the only place it happens. Predators do the same thing on social media.
Some of the most popular social media sites including YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram, and WhatsApp are not immune to predators. Each outlet offers different services, but they all present different opportunities for dangerous activity.
YouTube is a video-sharing platform that allows anyone to upload, view, or comment on videos. Individual profiles are called “channels,” and users can subscribe to their favorite channels. When videos are posted, viewers get the opportunity to “thumbs up,” “thumbs down,” or comment on videos. The comments section is typically an area where viewers can interact with the channel and spark lively dialogue; however, YouTube faced an issue where the comments section on kid-friendly videos were anything but friendly.
The comments section on many kids’ videos became a hub for predators. These predators used the comments section to point out certain parts of the video at specific times to sexualize the children in non-sexual videos.
This is not the first time something like this has been an issue on YouTube. In 2017, YouTube ran into the issue where its algorithm recommended disturbing and sexual videos for children.
For a while, it seemed as if YouTube was not taking meaningful action against these predatory comments and accounts. However, YouTube has since made substantial efforts to eliminate this issue. The organization has disabled the comments on videos that feature minors, launched a comments classifier which identifies and removes 2X more individual comments, and terminated channels that try to compromise children. This is an ongoing effort, and YouTube encourages the public to continue flagging these harmful accounts should you come across them.
The guidelines for YouTube specifically prohibit the sexualization of minors, yet YouTube is not taking swift or certain action to stop the predators. They claim to have a zero-tolerance policy for the sexualization of minors, yet this keeps happening.
Snapchat is a social media platform where users can send “snaps” to one another. This app is unique because once the recipient opens a snap, the content of the message is available for a few seconds and then it vanishes. So essentially, the receiver looks at the snap and then it expires. In addition to sending snaps, users can add photos or videos to their story. When someone posts a story, the story is available for their friends’ viewing for 24 hours. Once the time is up, the story disappears.
The nature of the disappearing snap can be appealing because users think they can send what they want, consequence-free. The logic is that if the recipient of the snap cannot save the message, then the sender can share whatever they want. That logic is incorrect.
Like everything on the internet, when something is out there, it is there to stay. When messages are sent on Snapchat, the content of the snap gets stored in a database until the recipient opens the message or forever if you store snaps in memories. This doesn’t even account for all the third party programs that save snaps remotely. As a result, you can never have complete certainty that the message you sent is gone.
Often, teens do not realize their snaps will not disappear, so they send risky photos to their friends. This dangerous for teens because they do not know what the receiver of the message will do with the picture, nor do they realize that predators can infiltrate the database that stores these risky photos.
Recently, a man gained access to the Snapchat accounts of dozens of underage individuals ages 14–16 years old. With this access, the man used threats to extort these victims for sexually explicit content. Thankfully he has been arrested, but this is not the only time something like this has ever happened.
With more than a billion users, Instagram is one of the most popular social media platforms in the world. Instagram is great for sharing photos, videos, and interacting with friends, family, bloggers, and celebrities. Users can post pictures or videos on a feed or in a story (where, like Snapchat, the video or image disappears in 24 hours), communicate with others through comments or the messaging feature, or explore different topics through hashtags and the discover page.
A feature on Instagram is the ability to look up or follow hashtags. So, for example, if you love photos and videos of funny dogs, you could follow #funnydogs — that said, not all the hashtags on Instagram are as whimsical as #funnydogs.
Since finding out about this, Instagram restricted #dropboxlinks and #tradedropbox. In a statement to The Atlantic, Instagram revealed they are working on keeping child pornography off the platform and that they are working on making sure this disturbing content does not find its way back on Instagram.
Alternatively, predators look up seemingly harmless hashtags like #bathtime or #diaperchange and steal those photos for trading.
This is not the only trouble Instagram faces with predators. There have been multiple reports of children communicating with strangers on Instagram that end up with the strangers blackmailing them for sexually explicit images.
A 12-year-old from New York thought she was communicating with another girl her age, but she was actually chatting with a predator. This little girl did not know she was being lied to until the predator sent her an explicit picture and tried to extort the same from her.
Social media is not anonymous, yet you still do not always know if everyone is who they say they are.
WhatsApp is an app owned by Facebook that allows users to call, message, and video-chat people all over the world. The app is easily accessible, and anyone with an internet connection, smartphone, tablet, or computer can use the app. The chat function of WhatsApp is a selling point because up to 256 people can be in a chat at once, and users can send documents, PDFs, spreadsheets, and more through the chat function.
WhatsApp uses end-to-end encryption to keep messaging secure. As a result, the content of conversations is only accessible to the people in the chats. This encryption is so secure that even employees at WhatsApp cannot access encrypted messages.
While security measures are typically a good thing, they are being abused on WhatsApp. The encryption has made it possible to spread child pornography. In fact, there are many groups with the sole purpose of sharing child pornography, and they are not even hiding it. This kind of information circulates throughout WhatsApp, and these groups are visible for the world to see.
WhatsApp is supposed to have filters that identify and remove this content, but clearly, explicit material falls through the cracks. Not to mention, there are only about 300 employees to go through the activity of a platform with more than 1.5 billion users.
Plus, predators use WhatsApp to communicate with children. Often, predators will establish contact elsewhere, like a video game, and then move the conversation to a messaging platform such as WhatsApp.
Keeping Your Kids Safe
We do not want to discourage you from using these social media platforms, because they are great for connecting with loved ones and entertainment. However, we want to encourage you to be safe and smart with how you proceed.
Here are some internet safety rules we encourage you to share with your children:
- Set your profiles to private
- Do not accept friend requests or follow requests from strangers
- NEVER share personal information or photos with strangers online
- Only chat online with people you know in real life
- Never meet strangers from social media in real life
Parents, if you’re looking for some way to monitor your children further, we recommend:
- Keep up with their online behavior
- Control privacy settings to make sure your children have private accounts
- Set controls that prevent your child from accepting friend requests without your permission
- Obtain your child’s passwords and check their accounts often
Let this be a reminder that child pornography is prevalent and in places you may not expect.
The Innocent Lives Foundation is dedicated to unmasking anonymous online predators to help bring them to justice. We work closely with law enforcement by developing files and providing actionable evidence to aid in predator prosecution.
We work to allow every child the enjoyment of an innocent life by making a positive impact on their behalf.
Stay tuned for our next couple of blog posts for more information about online what to do if your loved one is being groomed and how to protect your loved one from online predators.
Image: Allard Schager/Alamy (retrieved from theguardian.com)