OPINION: Instagram and the sexual predator

Instagram (Unsplash)
Instagram (Unsplash)

Without overseeing what our kids are doing on Instagram, checking in frequently and having multiple conversations around your children's online activity, they are bound to make mistakes with long term serious psychological, reputational and even legal consequences, write Sarah Hoffman and Emma Sadleir.

On first impression, Instagram may seem a fun and somewhat frivolous place for networking, chatting and following fashionistas, celebrities and socialites. But the picture-sharing platform has a very sinister and often dangerous side which all parents of teens and tweens need to know about: it is a breeding ground for sexual predators.

The most obvious issue with Instagram is that users can pretend to be anyone they want to be. Adults can pretend to be teenagers, children can pretend to be adults, an adult man can – in the click of a few buttons – appear to be a beautiful teenage girl at the next-door school.

At the Digital Law Company, we have seen a dramatic increase of cases where young boys and girls have been groomed on Instagram and been lured into sending sexually suggestive or naked photos or videos. We are inundated with hysterical parents flooding our inbox with stories of their children entering into online relationships with people who are not who they say they are. The high-profile prosecution of a Cape Town youth pastor earlier this year who posed as a young girl on Instagram to solicit naked pictures from teenage boys across the southern suburbs is not an uncommon tale.

We speak to school students and their parents on the risks of social media. When we discuss online safety and talking to strangers online, we often show students a photograph of a rickety and obviously dodgy looking red van advertising free candy.

We always ask the question "If this vehicle was parked in front of your school, would you go up to it?" to which the response is a resounding "NO!"

The problem in the digital age, is that it is so quick and easy to create a fake online profile, particularly on Instagram, that we often don't know who is the hot boy/girl from a nearby school and who is the creepy guy driving the red candy van pretending to be the hot boy/girl from the nearby school.

What is particularly scary but important for parents to keep in mind is that the sexual predator in the digital age is smart and sleek and knows exactly what to do to get the attention of a victim.

A profile will be set up to be something that a victim would be interested in. The predator will be sure to follow/like accounts liked by the victim so that it appears that they have a number of mutual friends. The problem here is that for teens and tweens (and adults as well), the number of followers and likes on Instagram is seen as one huge popularity contest: the more followers, the better you are.

What's more is the fact that the vetting process for most teens and tweens for deciding who to allow to follow you (if there is one at all) is far from comprehensive – if you're lucky your child will look at the profile, see whether there are mutual friends and then swiftly "accept" the request to boost the number of followers he/she has. 

Direct messages

One of the biggest dangers of the platform is that even if you have a private account, people who are not following you can send you direct messages. We have had hundreds of reports of young school students who, notwithstanding the fact that they have private accounts have received sexually explicit photographs from total strangers.

We had one particular case in our office where the victim was a 12-year-old girl. Like any 12-year-old girl (and most adults) she wanted attention and affirmation, and so when a seemingly good-looking 14-year-old boy from another Johannesburg school started messaging her on Instagram she felt really flattered.

In addition to the run-of the mill complexes that most girls have, this 12-year-old was also dyslexic, and so because she couldn't type messages properly, she would send the "14-year-old" voice notes. The real clincher for her was when he told her that he, too was dyslexic. That was what made her feel safe and comfortable enough to send photographs of herself in her underwear to this person and arranged to meet him. Of course this was not the hot 14-year-old boy from the nearby school, but was, in actual fact a 49-year-old (non-dyslexic) adult man.

What parents have to understand is that the frontal lobe – the impulse control and decision-making part of the brain – is not fully developed until the age of 25. Teens and tweens do not understand the concept of permanent consequences to their actions, and very much live for an instant gratification sense of reward. Without overseeing what our kids are doing on Instagram, checking in frequently and having multiple conversations around your children's online activity, they are bound to make mistakes with long term serious psychological, reputational and even legal consequences.

So what can you do to keep your teens and tweens safe on Instagram?

- Don't let them use the app until they are 13. If it was up to us we'd make the age restriction older because it's not a question of IF they'll be exposed to unsavoury characters and inappropriate material but WHEN.

- Ensure your child has a private account and be very strict about who they allow to follow them (there's no point having a private account if they are going to let people they don't know follow them). Have conversations with your child about:

Stranger danger and not talking to people you don't know in real life; being discerning about who you allow to follow you on Instagram – explain to your children that being popular on Instagram is like being rich in monopoly; blocking anyone who makes you feel even in the slightest bit uncomfortable online; confiding in you whenever they feel upset/unconfirmable or threatened.

- Consider setting up a smartphone contract between you and your child to encourage all round good digital citizenship – as the person who provides your child with the phone, you are entitled to lay down some ground rules as to how the phone is and isn't used. You can download a smartphone contract from the Digital Law Company website.

- Limit time spent online – there are a number of apps and tools which allow you to limit the time your children spend online and the time spent on specific apps. Apple's Screen Time app and Google Family Link are two free and relatively easy to use options.

- Disable location services on the app so that your child's location is not accessible to others

- Turn off direct messaging – your child might kick up a huge fuss about this one as this is often the preferred place of communication (more than WhatsApp) for teens and tweens – but certainly for the little ones, this is a good idea.

- Consider using a monitoring tool such as Bark which monitors the images, videos, and comments that your child posts on Instagram and sends alerts on potential issues like cyberbullying, sexting, and online predators.

* Sadleir and Hoffman are part of The Digital Law Company, which provides advice, guidance and education in the field of digital media.

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