The dark side of scrolling. Abuse of children gets platform on social media

Reports about illegal and harmful content on the internet increased substantially in Lithuania this year. Social networks like Instagram are the new hunting grounds for child abusers, observers warn.

Sofia, an artist and designer in her late 20s based in Spain, was calmly scrolling through her Instagram feed, when a shocking picture of a child posing as an adult model appeared on her phone screen.

“It was an 8-year-old boy on all fours, camera angle from behind,” Sofia recalls her first encounter with child abuse on Instagram.

It was her friend who had shared the disturbing picture, asking people to help take it down. The content of the picture was clearly sexual, so Sofia immediately reported it as violating Instagram’s community rules. Deeply disturbed, she decided to go further and find out what else was behind the account sharing such obscene material.

By searching the hashtags used in the post, she instantly found dozens of Instagram profiles sharing similar content.

“People managing these accounts use certain codes and hashtags. It is easy to find them. Once you get into one of the accounts, you can easily navigate through the whole network of related profiles,” Sofia claims.

One after another, child-abusing material rolled out in front of Sofia’s eyes: pictures of teenagers and even kids striking sexual poses, posing naked, in skimpy outfits, or even being exploited by adults were accessible in just one click on her smartphone.

“Comments are the worst part,” Sofia says. “Grown men are discussing children’s looks, their sexual responses, and referring to ‘trading’ pictures via direct messages. Reading these comments, you realise there is a whole community behind this.”

Moreover, Instagram profiles are “just the first step”, Sofia says, as many contain links leading to websites and chat rooms or private messaging on encrypted apps like Telegram.

In the weeks after the disturbing discovery, Sofia decided to raise awareness of the issue and shared her findings with her Instagram followers. Now she helps to manage a growing group of activists who are working together to disclose and report Instagram accounts that share child abusive pictures. Dozens of the group members also initiated a  petition   asking the social network to act. It has already been signed by almost 13,000 people from around the world.

Jaclyn, another activist who has asked to stay anonymous, claims that in the last two months she alone has exposed over 230 accounts sharing child abusive material or even downright pornography on Instagram.

“Sometimes I see euphemistic pictures that may resemble a sex act featuring a child, I’ve also seen a lot of pictures of children sleeping or photos that seem to have been taken without the child knowing. In a few instances, there were even videos of actual child rape,” says the activist.

Lithuania’s monitoring agencies say reports about illegal and harmful content on the internet increased by 56 percent over the first quarter of 2020 compared to the same period last year.

“Unfortunately, material related to sexual exploitation of children online accounts for the majority of the reports we receive,” says Rasa Karalienė, a spokeswoman for Lithuania’s Communications Regulatory Authority, adding that one in three reports received last year were about sexual exploitation of children.

In 2019, the hotline Clean Internet, which registers reports about illegal or harmful content online, took action in 297 confirmed cases of child sexual abuse. Requests to take down the child-abusing material from the internet were sent to Lithuanian and foreign police agencies, international institutions, and social networks themselves.

Even though data does not indicate how many of these cases were linked to Instagram and other social networks popular with children and teenagers, the organisation say they are well aware of the creepy developments behind the youngsters’ smartphone screens.

Representatives from the Clean Internet hotline, together with specialists from the National Education Agency and several other NGOs, are regularly visiting schools, events, and summer camps to educate kids about internet safety. Stories they hear “are really sad”, according to Karalienė.

“Children tell us about the comments they receive which are often extremely unpleasant, offensive, and also have sexual implications. They also share their experiences of how they discover pornographic content by themselves,” says Karalienė.

Children, like most people, feel much freer and more open on social networks, therefore some of them become more vulnerable to potential abuse, say specialists at the Lithuanian Criminal Police Bureau. “From our experience, social networks are some of the most favorable media for online child abuse crimes,” according to their written comment.

Would-be abusers often look for emotionally weaker children and pretend to be their peers, the Criminal Police Bureau says.

“In a semi-playful form or imitating a friendship, they begin to ask for intimate photos. After receiving such photos, offenders might blackmail – demand more photos in order not to make public those they already received,” explain specialists from the Criminal Police Bureau.

Last year, the Lithuanian police investigated over 300 criminal offenses related to child abuse, child exploitation for pornography, and distribution of child sexual abuse material on the internet. Eighty cases were opened in the first quarter of 2020. The numbers have been stable for the last three years, yet they may not give the full picture.

Due to stigmatization, children will not speak to their parents and even when they find out about it, they are reluctant to go to law enforcement, the police say.

According to a recent  survey   by the Internet Watch Foundation, fewer than half of young men in the UK would contact the police if they came across images of child sexual abuse. According to various data, men make up the absolute majority of online child abuse viewers.

In recent years, Instagram received abundant criticism for ignoring the safety of its youngest users. Only last December, and threatened by fines from the US government, did the social media giant finally start asking new users to verify that they were at least 13 years old.

In reality, however, “children start using social networks much earlier than the rules permit”, says Karalienė. “There are cases when parents themselves create social network accounts for their children, although children are still far too young to use them.”

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Instagram promised to reinforce action against online  bullying   as well as focus on the  wellbeing   of its users. Despite the new guidelines, some activists say the Facebook-owned company is still not doing enough to stop child abuse.

Jaclyn claims that it is becoming harder to take down accounts sharing child abuse material. Inappropriate pictures of children can stay online unnoticed for weeks or even months.

“If an account has a large number of followers, and even if it is obvious that the posted pictures are exploitation, it is impossible to take them down unless they get many reports. We have to do so-called ‘mass reporting’, where many people report an individual account,” says Jaclyn.

According to Sofia, even when a profile is reported many times, Instagram sometimes refuses to take it down.

“Instagram has algorithms so powerful it can take down a picture exposing a woman’s nipples in a few minutes. How is this offensive and the content of child abusive profiles is not?” she asks.

As of March 2020, almost a quarter of the Lithuanian population was using Instagram, according to the business data platform Statista.


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