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Instagram Alert! Are Sex Traffickers Targeting Your Kids?

It’s no secret that there’s been a rise in online child sexual exploitation during this pandemic. Combine that with summertime and there’s simply more time and opportunity for kids to be online. That extra time online also means that your children can be targeted by highly organized sex traffickers.

A father’s warning to other parents about Instagram

A father in Michigan wrote a harrowing experience about uncovering a sex trafficking plot in his daughter’s Instagram account. The twist in this story is that the initial contact that his daughter had through Instagram was a real 15-year-old boy named Bruce.

Shortly after meeting Bruce online, the daughter started being secretive. This caused the father to start going through his daughter’s phone at night. There were some red flags that popped up and he began to investigate Bruce’s background.

He found that several of the “friends” who were associated with Bruce’s account turned out to be men:

"What I didn’t know was the friends that were men acting as “friends” have set Bruce out as a scout…He was the first safe face that our children see; he unknowingly was luring young girls into his circle as prey for the men to pick and choose from. The circle of Bruce’s friend list reached the globe and his over 2k followers were nothing more than a smorgasbord of young unaware children these men were chatting with."

The saga ends with the father at the police station, where the detective of the Cyber Task Force confirmed the father’s suspicions: his daughter was being groomed by a sex trafficking ring. Thankfully, he was able to intervene just in time.

Related: Is Instagram Safe for Kids? What Parents Need to Know

Popularity of Instagram among teens

With so many social media choices and platforms out there, Instagram continues to be quite popular among teens. Here are some quick facts about Instagram:

  • Over a billion users are on Instagram per month
  • Over 100 million photos and videos are uploaded per day
  • 72% of teens use Instagram
  • Over one third (35%) of U.S. teenagers prefer Instagram over any other social media platform.

Social media is a recruiting gateway for the business of sex trafficking

Social media is a place to connect, share ideas, and promote or seek business opportunities. This blurring of the social and commercial makes social media a fluid and ripe opportunity for predators to create trafficking rings.

How does recruitment take place? Here are some typical patterns and procedures on social media:

  • The trafficker builds a relationship with a potential victim through social media.
  • Some traffickers use fake profiles. They may also impersonate or use a “bottom girl” to make contact. (“Bottom girl” is a sex trafficker slang term for a victim that is still under the trafficker’s control, but has earned a “higher ranking” among other victims. She may be the trafficker’s “right hand” help for controlling and/or recruiting the other victims.)
  • Many traffickers use their own personal social media profiles for communication.
  • Some sex traffickers use fake job offers for modeling, singing, or other potentially legitimate business opportunities to attract victims.
  • The recruitment may begin with the trafficker commenting on potential victims’ photos and sending direct messages (DMs). This is to build rapport, intimacy and trust with the victim.
  • Boyfriending” may be used – a manipulative tactic that involves extreme flattery, fake romantic interests, promises of financial gain, gifts, and even providing help with family issues.
  • The online relationship will usually end with the trafficker purchasing travel tickets or covering transportation costs in order to meet with the victim face-to-face.

Related: 7 Tactics a Child Predator Uses to Lure Kids: Red Flag Phrases Every Parent Needs to Know

Instagram-Specific Risks to Consider

Any social media platform can be used as a gateway to sex trafficking. Let’s consider a few red flags to watch out for with Instagram.

1. Business Mode

“Did you know that if your 13-year-old turns their Instagram account into a business account, more than 1 billion people have access to their contact information?” David Stier, Data Scientist

In addition to social connections, Instagram is about advertising, PR, and business opportunities.

Research shows that 73% of U.S. teens say Instagram is the best way for brands to reach them about new products or promotions.

In their quest to become a brand “influencer,” many teens are switching their Instagram setting to a “business.” The advantage to teens is that they now have access to the analytics they crave: number of visitors to their profile, which individual posts received the most traffic, etc.

Unfortunately, the trade off is too risky because the default business setting actually exposes your email and phone number to the world.

Note: Instagram doesn’t know how many of its minor users have switched their Instagram accounts to a business profile setting. The company also doesn’t vet its users for authentic business profiles.

Parent Tip: Check your child’s account to make sure that it’s not set to “business mode” without your knowledge. As of 2018, there’s also an optional “Creator Account” that’s not supposed to reveal personal contact information. The safest mode is “personal” so that only friends and followers can see posts.

2. Direct Messaging (DM)

“I didn’t realize the amount of pedophiles on Instagram...I don't know why any grown man would be following her on Instagram and telling her she’s cute.”  --Mom of 13-year-old Instagram user

Direct Messaging (DM) can be a channel for unwanted comments from strangers. The main problem is that even in non-business Instagram accounts, users can't opt out of receiving direct messages from strangers. Users can only opt out of seeing notifications for those messages.

Parent Tip:  Any Direct Messages from users that your child does not follow will appear as a request in his inbox. Your child can decline or accept the message. If he allows a message request from someone, then any future messages from that person will go directly to his inbox. Have a conversation with your child about not accepting messages from strangers: this can be an easy way for predators to make contact with your child.

3. Privacy Leaks

Even if your child’s Instagram privacy settings are secured, they don’t necessarily apply to other social media platforms. So, if you share a post to Facebook, Twitter, or Snapchat, the privacy settings for those social media accounts will apply.

Parent Tip: Because Instagram accounts are set to “public” by default, make sure that your teen knows about and uses the full range of privacy settings. One important one is that you can control whether or not your followers can “reshare” your posts. That feature can help you limit how much unwanted exposure your child receives from strangers.  Unfortunately, Instagram photos can also show up inadvertently on Google. This can happen if your child logs into Instagram using a web viewer.

Is Instagram right for your child?

Now for the million-dollar question: Should your child have an Instagram account?

Like any social media platform, Instagram is not immune to problems with pornography and even child sexual exploitation. Let’s take a look at what happened on Instagram during the first quarter (January – March) of this year alone:

  • Instagram reported taking action on 8.1 million posts with adult nudity and sexual activity, up from 6.3 million from Oct – Dec 2019.
  • Instagram also reported taking action on 1 million posts with child nudity and sexual exploitation of children during January – March 2020, up from 685.5 thousand pieces of content from October – December 2019.

Clearly, the companies are flagging disturbing material according to their own statistics, but is it enough?

The National Center on Sexual Exploitation says no!


National Center on Sexual Exploitation: #WakeUpInstagram


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Will Facebook/Instagram be liable for sex trafficking crimes?  U.S. Court sides with victims

This is big news in the war on online child sex-trafficking! Three young women who claim they were sex trafficked when they were teenagers filed lawsuits against Facebook or Instagram for negligence.

When the social media company tried to have their lawsuits dismissed (claiming their immunity under communications law), two of the three presiding trial judges disagreed. Do Facebook and Instagram just give “lip service” to helping combat sex trafficking on its sites?

The women who filed suit against Facebook/Instagram pointed out several glaring issues with the platforms:

The [plaintiffs against Facebook] claim Facebook does not require minors to link their account to a parent or guardian’s account, install filters to stop adults from communicating with minors, or install software that could alert on buzzwords typically used by adults attempting to groom a child such as “I love you,” “I understand you” and “I think you’re beautiful,” and block the adult from messaging the minor.

This case is an interesting one and may end up in the Supreme Court, so we’ll keep you posted.

Parent Tips:

  1. Remember that Instagram is supposed to be for teens aged 13 and over, although there is no real way to ensure age verification. Common Sense Media rates Instagram for age 15 and up because of “mature content, access to strangers, marketing ploys, and data collection.” Based on the available data, parents should be very cautious about letting their tween sons and daughters sign up.
  2. Even 15-year-olds need help from their parents to navigate the minefields of social media. If your teen has an Instagram account, create one for yourself (if you don’t already have one) and follow your daughter or son. You won’t be able to see their Direct Messages (DMs), but you can see their posts as long as they don’t block you.
  3. As an added measure, follow your kids’ friends so that you can quietly observe posts and comments.
  4. A third-party monitoring app such as Bark can help you monitor what your child is doing online.

Get ahead of the curve by being proactive!

At some point, your kids will undoubtedly come across questionable content (especially if they don’t limit their feeds to people they know). This can happen on Instagram or other social media.

Stay ahead of the curve by being proactive: talk with your kids about the dangers of sex trafficking and what online grooming looks like. Above all, remind them that you are always there to help them and abuse is never their fault!

Do you have an Instagram story or tip to share with us?  We’d love to hear your family's real life experiences with Instagram--the good and the bad!

Brain Defense: Digital Safety Curriculum - Family Edition

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