Instagram is the most popular youth-orientated social media platform on the internet, but evidence suggests it may also be the most dangerous.
The very nature of the image-based platform and it’s hypersexualized selfie culture is inappropriate for many of its young users, but that doesn’t stop the site from allowing anyone over the age of 13 to create an account. Pre-teens are also allowed to sign up, so long as they state somewhere on their page that a parent oversees their account, though this doesn’t have to be proved in any way. As a result, it’s now widely regarded by police as the worst social media site for child predators and sex traffickers.
Instagram’s Policy Doesn’t Bar Sexual Harassment of Minors
The days of the anonymous predators lurking in the shadows have gone. Today, it’s a commonplace occurrence for pedophiles to publicly leave sexual comments on the photos of minors on Instagram. So what is Instagram doing about it? The site claims to have a zero-tolerance policy towards abuse and harassment, though they don’t explicitly list sexual harassment as being part of this.
Research conducted by Protect Young Eyes found that when inappropriate photos and comments were reported, Instagram quashed the majority of reports and claimed that no site rules had been breached. This included photos of minors in underwear and sexualized poses, but because they were not fully nude, Instagram deems this acceptable. The same research also found that because of the way the site works to suggest similar pages to the ones you interact with, predatory accounts were actually being driven towards teen accounts as “Instagram suggests for you” pages.
Even with the privacy settings switched on, the DMs on teen accounts were regularly filled with grooming-style messages from adults.
But the problem goes far beyond voyeurism. In the same research by PYE, investigators found that even with the site’s privacy settings switched on, private messages on the accounts of teens were regularly filled with grooming-style messages from adults. (PYE’s own fake account received around 10 unsolicited sexual private messages from adults per day.) Predators were also found trying to entice minors to contact them by using hashtags popular with teenage girls on their posts.
Sex Traffickers Use Instagram To Find and Target Their Victims
The nature of the image-based platform mixed with teenage insecurity creates the perfect environment for sex traffickers to identify and target vulnerable girls. Research done by Path2Freedom found that 55% of domestic sex trafficking survivors met their trafficker through the internet, and last year, England’s leading children’s charity National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) found that Instagram had become the leading social media platform for child abuse and trafficking in the U.K. In the U.S., Michigan had the second-highest numbers of sex trafficking in 2019, and the state police found that Instagram was by far the largest online facilitator.
Instagram became the leading social media platform for child abuse and trafficking in the U.K in 2019.
In research done by the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE), child sex trafficking survivors explained how they were groomed and recruited for sex slavery through Instagram. Some traffickers pretended to befriend or be romantically interested in their victims. Others pretended to be photographers who wanted to help kickstart their modeling career. One girl revealed how she was blackmailed into trafficking after being solicited to send nude photos through Instagram’s private messages.
Predators Use Instagram as an Online Marketplace for Porn and Trafficking
As well as recruiting, Instagram has become a hub for sex traffickers to advertise and sell their victims. According to NCOSE, several teenage girls who survived sex trafficking were forced to perform sex acts on Instagram Live and were sold to abusers through the site.
Several teenage girls, who survived sex trafficking, were sold to abusers through Instagram.
Several of these pages operate under the guise of showcasing child models or dancers. There are other pages like this where the photos are stolen from legitimate sites and used as a place for predators to secretly look at legal images of children and network with one another. Even though the comments paint a clear picture of what’s going on in these pages, they’re rarely removed because the images themselves are innocent. An investigation by news site The Atlantic discovered that many of these pages and their followers were trading links to child porn with one another in Instagram’s private messages.
Instagram must take action. The minimum age required to create an account should be much, much higher and enforced using a secure method of age verification. If Instagram will continue to allow minors to use the site, they must make their privacy settings secure and mandatory, start appropriately responding to reports of sexual harassment, and create algorithms to remove inappropriate content.
The National Center on Sexual Exploitation is urging them to do just that. See how you can support them here.