How can we protect our kids from online predators, if we’re somewhat clueless about the social media world in which they live?
Several years ago, before I became a mom, I was a juror in an online child pornography case here in Vermont. That experience left me thinking about the online and social media world my future child would inherit. The trial exposed me to details about the seedy underworld of child predators in my own backyard. It was a disturbing case… so disturbing that therapy was offered after the trial concluded for any juror who needed it, given the imagery of young children that was submitted into evidence.
Without going into any details about the trial itself, it did provide some insight into the world of child predation and exploitation. This is happening here, in Vermont, in your town, right under your nose. And in this part of the world, the internet is the vehicle through which child sexual abuse imagery is bought and sold. This occurs largely on the dark web, which is a place on the internet that you don’t access with Google and is where a lot of unsavory activities occur. This is where child predators can find and share illicit content. Some of that content comes directly from abusers, those who seek profit from the distribution of child exploitation content. However, the dark web isn’t the only source for materials related to child exploitation. Social media can also pose a threat. According to a New York Times investigation, tech companies reported “a record 45 million illegal images” last year alone. Let that sink in for a moment, because that number is both staggering and terrifying.
Most of us worry about sharing photos of our kids on the internet.
If you share a photo on Facebook, for example, anyone could click on that photo and save the image. Frankly, someone could just screenshot an image from any social media, and that image can then be distributed to anyone, anywhere in the world. It’s a scary thought. We talk a lot about consent in the social media age, for safety reasons, and to allow our kids the right to control their “story”. As parents, we make a choice about whether or not to share content about our kids on social media before they can provide (or understand) consent.
Concern about social media and consent is completely understandable. Your job is to protect your family, and once something is online (photos or words), it is out of your direct control, broadcast to the world. It’s helpful to understand how victims are typically targeted. While photos that a predator has could originate from a harmless post, it is not likely that someone is interested in using a photo of your fully clothed child going down a slide for nefarious purposes. However, it makes sense to use extreme caution when it comes to pictures of children naked (yes, even babies), in a swimsuit, or in anything that appears overly revealing or “adult”. While those images may seem harmless to you as a loving and pride-filled parent, I learned through my experience as a juror that images like these trigger something very different in the mind of a predator.
According to Common Sense Media, “12 to 15 seems to be the prime time” age when kids are at the highest risk of being victimized by a predator. Predators target kids who post revealing pictures, divulge past sexual abuse, and/or engage in sexual talk online.” This is an age when kids typically have more freedom on the internet and could be putting themselves at risk by sharing information or images that are exposing.
To be sure, any time your child has access to online communication where there are adult strangers and little to no moderation, they are at risk.
As a parent, this is the age where I most fear social media use. Even though I haven’t reached this age with my child yet, I am already so clueless about the social media world my son will enter that I worry about how I can protect him from the various unknown and unseen forces.
By the time my son is 12, I expect social media to be wholly different than it is today. After all, I didn’t even have a computer in my home until I was in high school, and that was with AOL dial-up! Sure, online predators existed then, but fewer kids had private access to computers and there were limited numbers of sites where people interact with each other.
Lucky for us, there are resources like Common Sense Media that provide a list of the “18 Social Media Apps and Sites Kids Are Using Right Now,” with helpful tips for clueless parents (like me).
You’ve probably heard that young kids aren’t using Facebook, and for the most part, it’s true. It’s for old dinosaurs and “okay boomers” like us. There’s even a rising trend of non-social media users among younger people as well. (If that trend continues, we’ll have a lot less to worry about.) However, the New York Times reported that “nearly two-thirds of reports in 2018” were made due to Facebook Messenger. Facebook announced plans to encrypt messages, but that would only make detection more difficult for authorities.
While YouTube may not be considered social media to some, it is king when it comes to video content, so it is essential to monitor. And with the ability to comment and live chat, the video isn’t all that needs monitoring. Much like a Google search, YouTube delivers both related and unrelated results, and some of it can be inappropriate. Thankfully, YouTube Kids allows parental control features and curated content. Also, because YouTube violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), they will now restrict data collection, stop serving personalized ads, and turn off comments and live chatting for any video content tagged for children. It’s not complete protection, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Instagram is still fairly popular, as kids can perfectly curate their persona in an online world using photos, videos, and hashtags (though I learned on the Netflix show “You” that using hashtags is now passé and makes you seem “thirsty”). The search for “likes” has been linked to mental health issues as the number of likes becomes connected to the user’s sense of worth. Unless your child has privacy settings in place, photos are public and hashtags (if used) may reveal location information. Another trend in Instagram use is the “Finsta” account where teens have one fake account for their parents to see, and another, less censored account for their friends.
Twitter is still in the mix too. Tweets are short messages, and most users are not setting their accounts to private, so keep in mind that this could become a public record of whatever thoughts spring out of your child’s developing mind. When MySpace was a thing (there I go, dating myself again), I posted some pretty stupid things… just saying. Fortunately, Twitter tends to be less popular with younger people.
Snapchat is also still popular. Users can post a picture or video that will display for a specified period of time before it disappears. Young people have a false sense of security using this app. Because the content is set to disappear, they may post more risque content assuming it would never go public. However, a user on the receiving end could always disseminate a screenshot.
Tik Tok is a newer social network where you can post short videos. It’s become a popular place for performers (like singers) to share their content with friends or the public. However, it’s noted to have a tendency for “creepy comments” as users may comment on a performer’s body, rather than their skill. Similar to Instagram, there is a drive to gain likes and followers, which can easily damage a person’s sense of self-worth. It’s also important to note that some people are against this site because it may harvest data to send to China.
Tumblr is a streaming scrapbook where users can share a variety of content, like photos, videos, and words. Here, you can reblog (similar to a re-tweet), so content can easily be copied and shared, becoming very public. The only way to make an account private is to create a second profile that is password-protected, which is not intuitive, to say the least. Porn is also easy to find, and Tumblr is now entering the chat category. The same New York Times investigation reported that law enforcement records reveal Tumblr to be “one of the least cooperative companies” in responding to their questions. In one instance, they even “alerted a person who had uploaded explicit images that the account had been referred to the authorities”, allowing that user critical time to “destroy evidence.”
You may have heard of Discord, which originated as a chat platform for gamers. This has been growing in popularity as it evolved to include text, voice, and video chat. A user can join a public or private discussion group, but without a lot of moderation, it’s possible to end up in a group with questionable, sometimes mean, content.
There are other texting apps like WhatsApp, GroupMe, and Kik Messenger. There are live-streaming video apps like Houseparty, Live.me, and YouNow. There are apps like Whisper, Monkey, MeetMe, Omegle, Yubo, and Amino. Haven’t heard of these? Me either. It’s pretty hard to keep up with the ever-evolving world of social media.
Protecting our kids from the negative impacts of social media—like predators, bullying, mental trauma, etcetera—is no easy undertaking. Knowledge, and communication, as with most things in life, are critical.
What can you do?
You can avoid posting any pictures of your child on social media until they consent and post themselves, but they may still choose to share or be exposed to content that is damaging to them in one form or another. Our kids will grow up in a world that we, as parents, don’t fully understand (we are dinosaurs, after all). However, we can use our awareness and discretion in what we choose to share of our kids, and we can educate ourselves and our kids on the potential threats behind the social media they decide to use themselves.
We can teach our kids to trust us and foster open communication.
We can teach our kids responsibility, self-respect, and ownership. We can teach our kids about consequences… you know, all the usual parental stuff.
We can stay vigilant. One thing that I discovered is that when a predator targets a minor, they are likely to ask the child to chat with them on many different apps to make their activity more difficult to track.
We may be clueless about the social trends of today, but we aren’t clueless about the way the world works. I wish you luck as you navigate the world of social media with your family, whenever that may be.