“And all those likes! Mmhmm, there’s nothing like them!” says Zion, one of the characters in the new animated online safety series “Into the Cloud”. I wrote that line for Zion in late-2017, two years before Instagram announced they’d be removing likes from certain posts in order to curb what the company’s CEO Adam Mosseri described as the acute anxiety and social pressures stemming from the app, which were being felt especially hard by younger users.
Instagram made this change because Zion is right! Those “likes” feel good! According to Dar Meshi, a cognitive neuroscientist at Michigan State University, “We’re hardwired to find social interactions rewarding.” Humans take some of the same pleasure from this social reward system as they do from gambling!
And for years, those “likes” have been profitable. Social media influencers rely on “likes” to track engagement and prove their status. These influencers then get paid to promote products like makeup and beauty tools, dietary supplements, clothing and more. This promotion can be big money; in 2018, one influencer reportedly made over $18 million in a single year!
But what do sponsored content and influencers have to do with your child who just uses social media to keep in touch with friends and post pictures of the dog?
Because anyone can be anything online, the prospect of becoming “Instagram Famous” is not entirely outside the realm of possibility. Currently, a picture of an egg is the most-liked Instagram post ever, with 25 million likes, surpassing a post by Kylie Jenner (of reality TV fame) that got 18 million likes. If an egg can get 25 million likes on a post and acquire a following of 7 million, what’s stopping one of your child’s photos from being next?
Followers and likes are status symbols to many users today. Watch any YouTuber and you’ll almost certainly hear something to the effect of “…and if you enjoyed this video and want more, be sure to like and subscribe!”
Offenders like and subscribe.
At NCMEC we see it every day- adults using “likes” and positive comments to befriend young children and then take advantage of that relationship to exploit the child. This could include instructing the child to appear naked or do sexual things on a video, to send sexually explicit images, or even convincing the child to meet in person.
This type of victimization is called online enticement. Online enticement involves an individual communicating with someone believed to be a child via the internet with the intent to commit a sexual offense or abduction.
“But how are you gonna go viral if you’re only sharing with people you actually know!?” is among Zion’s other notable lines in “T.M.I”, Episode 2 of “Into the Cloud”. I added this element to Zion’s story after talking to CyberTipline analysts who shared anecdotes of children being tricked into producing exploitive content of themselves, all in the pursuit of likes and followers.
And this happens when parents are around.
In a surprising number of videos, parents or other family members can be heard in nearby parts of the building, just feet from where explicit video content of their child is being produced. These videos or photos are often taken in bathrooms, bedrooms or living rooms; sometimes they seem to be created at sleepovers with friends. According to NCMEC analysts, many of the children who are creating explicit content of themselves are seen locking doors in the room and/or whispering in the video—seemingly aware that what they are doing is inappropriate, but unable, to say ‘no’ to the requests for content.
What can be done about this?
First and foremost- report any inappropriate behavior toward children to the CyberTipline.
Next, check privacy settings! There are age-controlled features in almost every app or game, and they are there for a reason. Most chat-features are disabled for users age 13 and under, which really helps reduce access to children by adult users.
Try involving kids in setting family ground rules for technology. Have a group discussion about what times (like dinner time or half an hour before bed time) technology use should be off-limits for both adults and kids.
Don’t shy away from tough topics. Children and teens may not take the first steps in disclosing to you an uncomfortable online interaction. You may need to start the conversation. You may hear something that upsets you, but try to respond in a collected, calm manner. This will help signal to kids that they can come to you when they’re in need. Consider asking questions like:
- Has anyone ever tried talking to you online about inappropriate or sexual things? What did you do?
- Has someone ever asked you for a picture of your private parts? Or sent you something like that?
- Do you trust all of your online friends? Are there any people you should unfriend or block?
- Do you know how to report, flag or block people on the websites and apps you use? Can you show me?
- Who would you talk to if you were upset by a request you received online?
Where can I learn more?
The best line of defense against online offenders is a well-informed, and well-engaged internet user. That means both parents and children should be aware of current trends in digital safety. NCMEC’s online safety program, NetSmartz, is a great place to start learning about digital safety issues for both parents and kids. The content on NetSmartzKids.org is catered directly for children ages 10 and under, while MissingKids.org/NetSmartz has content for parents and teens ranging from videos on cyberbullying to tip sheets on talking to teens about sexting.
Visit MissingKids.org/NetSmartz for more!