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Shame Nation: Choose To Be Part Of “The Solution”

Last updated on February 26th, 2022 at 08:22 pm

It was July 2017 and I was at home when I got a call from my niece. She and my sister were driving somewhere, and I remember this particular call because it went something like this…

    • “Hey Aunt Stef…you’ve got to check this out…it’s the funniest thing…You remember when we did that show Legally Blonde? Well there’s this group of young kids, and I guess they did a performance of it too, only their teacher video-taped it and posted it on YouTube and oh my G-d Aunt Stef, it’s AWFUL. I mean it’s so bad it’s funny. You’ve got to watch it. Here let me text you some of it.”
    • No that’s ok babe, I don’t need to see it”…
    • “Really Aunt Stef, it’s sooo funny, mom watched it and she thought it was hysterical. I can’t believe their teacher posted this. It went viral so fast it’s incredible. Look I know it’s really long but you can fast forward through some of it, I’ll tell you where the funniest parts are”.
    • Honey…how old are these kids?”
    • “I don’t know…I think they’re in middle school… Look Aunt Stef I’ve got to go, I just texted it to you…watch it later and tell me what you think. You’re going to die laughing…. I love you!!”

I didn’t check it out. But I also didn’t tell her not to. And that bothered me. Something felt really wrong with this video. I was worried about those little kids…I was worried FOR those little kids. How old were they. How long had this been going viral, and how many people around the world were laughing at them. I knew for a fact my niece and her friends at school were…and still, even though it bothered me…I said and did nothing.

When I look back at it now, I think it’s because my niece and her friends weren’t bad or mean kids. Actually quite the opposite. My niece is a gifted and talented young actress studying at a high school for the arts, and I am incredibly proud of her, but for a very different reason. I can say without a doubt that she is one of the nicest, kindest people I know, and she would NEVER deliberately hurt someone! In fact, she feels things very deeply. Yet she missed this! She didn’t see the pain she and the other people watching and laughing over that video were causing.

How the heck did we get here??? To this place where we can sit in a room and make fun of someone who is not there to defend themselves and have no sense at all that our laughing at them could be hurting them.

That is EXACTLY what nationally recognized speaker, parent advocate, and Internet safety expert Sue Scheff explores with the help of journalist, YA author, and blogger Melissa Schorr in her newly released book Shame Nation: The Global Epidemic of Online Hate. Sue knows firsthand how devastating cyber shaming can be. In 2006 she won a landmark case for Internet defamation and invasion of privacy. Now a leader in the movement against cyber bullying, she focuses on teaching others how to avoid virtual cruelty and how to effectively react when it occurs.

According to Shame Nation, psychologists point to several factors that have allowed online cruelty like this to flourish:

  • the anonymity of the Internet;
  • the distance, or lack of face-to-face contact, with a victim,
  • mob mentality run amok,
  • lack of gatekeepers and
  • lack of consequences.

Taken together these factors have become known as the “online disinhibition effect”, the notion that people behave far differently online than they would in reality.

But it’s more than that. It’s also due in part to our failure to instill empathy in young people, and Shame Nation explores this as well. Parenting expert Dr. Michele Borba, EdD, author of UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World makes a strong case that a decrease in basic empathy has created a culture ripe for online attacks. The inability to see those on the other side of the computer screen as people deserving of our compassion is a huge driver. Instead of feeling sad for their pain, we make it funny. We sit at home and watch the “People of Walmart” and laugh as people are publicly shamed. You don’t see or feel the hurt…it’s so far removed, it’s not “real”.

That was what happened with the middle-school performance of Legally Blonde. My niece missed the ball on this one. There was an opportunity to be an “Upstander” …not just a bystander…or worse, add to the teasing and humiliation, and she missed it. But whose fault was that really? If I’m being honest, it was mine

I’m the adult, I set the example. This means I and the other adults in her life need to know what’s happening out in the cyber-world so I can educate her. So she knows what to look for to avoid becoming a victim…or inadvertently a bully.

And while we’re on this subject, I know some of you may be thinking “lock her in her room and for anything other than schoolwork, shut off the internet and all those damn devices” is the answer. But while it may sound good on paper, realistically, I can’t tell her to stay off-line. No-one can. For better or worse, this is a connected world we live in…all of us… kids and adults. Going off the grid is just not an option – and it won’t save her. As Nancy Jo Sales describes in her book American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, “I spoke to girls who said, “Social media is destroying our lives. But we can’t go off it, because then we’d have no life.”

So my niece is on the grid (and I am guessing if you are reading this, so is a child you care about), and she is not getting off any time soon – not as a child, and realistically not as an adult. But I can help her. I can:

  • Teach her how to avoid trouble: give her guidelines for online sharing; show her how to protect her online identify and run regular checkups to make sure no-one is damaging her reputation
  • Teach her how to control a disaster if things go wrong: how to document, block, report and identify someone trying to harm her.
  • Teach her how to get support: to take advantage of resources like HeartMob and Crisis Text Line and Online SOS…and know there are systems in place providing help, from simple letters of support to full-on legal aid, if she finds herself a victim of a digital attack.

Because that’s what I learned from Shame Nation: The Global Epidemic of Online Hate.

And finally, I can Teach her to be an Upstander. I can explain what that word is, why it’s important to stand-up for someone else. And then I can apologize for not doing that…and for failing her and those kids. And that’s when I realized if I didn’t do something right at that moment, I would be failing them both again.

So I picked up the phone and called her. And it was a difficult call. Because while it was about something she had done, in truth, it was more about what I hadn’t done. And my very sensitive niece brought up an excellent argument – one I’m betting every one of you will have to deal with at some point, because it’s really fundamental to the Upstander / bystander question:

  • “But Aunt Stef, I don’t think there’s really anything I could have done…there were millions of people…that post went viral”.

She had a point – but then again, that’s the battle every single person faces when they’re being bullied online. They’re one person and it feels like they’re fighting the world. That’s what made this book so insightful, and so powerful, at least for me. What do you do…what can you do…if you come up against this situation… Whether you are living this or just witnessing this. This was my answer…

“Well, hon, what do you think about this”…and I gave her an example I had read (thank you Sue) about a heavy-set middle-aged man who was being publicly humiliated. All he did was dance at a local bar with friends, but someone captured it on video and posted it and the rude comments started coming in from all over. Until two women in LA created a #FindDancingMan twitter campaign, said “I’d dance with that guy”, and created a movement that turned the shaming into a party of compassion.

    • “I’m not saying you have to create a “dancing man campaign” but do you think you and your friends could come up with something creative that might make those kids feel even just a little bit better?”

 

    • I don’t know…maybe”.

And just like that, this HUGE weight came off my shoulders. She didn’t have to have an answer… that wasn’t the magic pill here. She’s a brilliant kid with a big heart and this hit home. I stood up for those kids…and for her …and I think when she has an opportunity, she will stand up for someone else.

It has to start somewhere… That day, it started with us…

How Concerned Should Parents Be About Kik?

Last updated on December 11th, 2021 at 09:34 pm

Kik is one of the more popular messenger apps used by tweens and teenagers. Parents should learn about this app because it has a history of being a breeding ground for online predators, spammers, hackers and more. Worse yet, I’ve spoken with local law enforcement officers who report that the company has been very reluctant to help them with cases involving cyberbullying and harassment where other platforms would be more willing to help.

Kik was going to shut down in 2019 but came back in a modified format. In the new format, users can have Kik put them together into a private chat based on mutually liked topics, such as music, games, travel, etc. These private rooms are anonymous, and users have several minutes to decide if they wish to continue the discussion using their official profiles.

Another feature allows people can create group chats for up to 50 people. The members of the group stay in the group even after they stop using the app each day so they can return to it later. Additionally, Kik has created quite a few public chatrooms for groups based on topics like where they live, hobbies, etc. Many of them, especially those that are from a specific geographic area, tend to fill up quickly. That makes them an easy place for predators to find local targets.

Take a look at the graph below to see how I rate Kik on several key areas of concern for parents. In my article for Pediatric Safety on Instagram, I explain in much more detail what the values on the graph mean and how using an app might endanger a child, but here it is in short form:

What the Numbers Mean:

The numbers / ratings represent the likelihood that you will see the risky behavior occur within this app.

  • Rating < 5 is minimal risk and is highly unlikely to occur on the platform, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t happen.
  • A rating of 5-6 is average risk – it should concern parents, but not overly so.
  • A rating of 7 or 8 is problematic and should concern parents quite a bit.
  • A 9 or 10 rating is very troubling as that behavior is almost a certainty within this app, and involves issues that are likely of extreme concern to parents, such as sextortion and child pornography.

Catfishing (10 out of 10)

Of all of the apps that I’ve seen, Kik rates the worst when it comes to the number of catfish (fakes) on it. Similar to Whisper, Kik is considered an “anonymous app”, but unlike Whisper, it actually has a profile of sorts. This can trick people into believing that the person at the other end is as shown in the profile. It’s not a safe assumption, but many people, especially inexperienced kids, often make it.

Cyberbullying (7 out of 10)

Cyberbully can happen on any site and Kik is no different. It is pretty easy to block someone who attacks you directly in private messages. Where cyberbullying is most likely to happen is within a Kik group. Once in a group, the members can “roast” another person. Unlike the humorous roasts people see on TV of celebrities, social media roasts tend to be cruel. Imagine being attacked online, live, by dozens of people all at once!

I’ve been invited into more than one group, only to be roasted because of my age (I show my real age). When teens see someone old enough to be their father on Kik, they feel the need to treat them with disdain. Many either see me as a predator or at the least, a weirdo for being online with teenagers. I take that as a good sign, actually, that those teens are at least looking out for predators. Sometimes, however, I’ve been approached by younger users who want to start a relationship with me.

Language (10 out of 10)

One of the funniest things on Kik is seeing people using intentionally incorrect spelling. They’re trying to avoid being detected by filters to help identify cyberbullying, sexting and the like. For example, rather than saying that they are looking for sex, they will put spaces between the letters. Another option is to spell words phonetically.

What they fail to realize is that the site has no interest in doing such a thing. Even casual observation by the company would notice how prevalent the problem is and if the company wanted to take action, they could do so easily. If they wanted to scan for people who type, “I want sex,” they can also scan for people who type, “I want s e x,” or some other common variation of vulgar/inappropriate speech.

Profanity, racial and homophobic slurs are very common on Kik. As are attacks based on nationality, political beliefs and just about anything else that people can think of to attack. The public groups created by people are often listed as “unmoderated” or “no limits” and the posts in those rooms can get intense, but not always. I’ve seen some group admins be responsible and remove users who act inappropriately.

Nudity (9 out of 10)

This app features plenty of nudity on it, including both pictures and videos. Like many social media apps, users have a profile picture. While many of the accounts have acceptable images, that’s not always the case. Some users include inappropriate images, even of younger children.

Private chats between users can embed images directly in the conversation. I have seen quite a bit of nudity sent, usually from automated accounts trying to get me to follow a link to have access to even more images. I have also received unsolicited images and videos from people that contain nudity, both of men and women. Below is a private message sent directly to me from an account that I never engaged with previously. The image on the left is the profile picture on the account.

I have reported accounts to Kik but have never seen any actions taken as a result. It is possible that the service took actions without telling me, but I have my doubts. Even if they did, it’s all too easy to simply start a new account with another email address.

Privacy (5 out of 10)

I don’t consider any app/site to be private. That said, Kik scores lower than most simply because of how it works. There is really no expectation of privacy on the app. Users can block individual users from contacting them, but that’s about it. My personal blocked list has several hundred accounts on it.

Sexting (10 out of 10)

Despite what the original or publicly claimed intention was for Kik, it has evolved into essentially a pure sexting app. I’ve spent quite a bit of time on this app and while there are a few people not looking for sexting, I find that the majority of users are hoping to find someone for sexting purposes.

Beyond the posting actively looking for people to sext or roleplay with, a innocuous introduction to someone, such as “Hi.” or “How are you?”, can often result in an obscene reply, often with images. Considering the amount of catfishing that happens on the site, who knows if the images are of the actual user.

Sextortion (9 out of 10)

Hand in hand with sexting comes sextortion, the blackmailing of someone to provide nude images/videos. If you’re not familiar with what sextortion is, take 60 seconds to watch this video. It is a very realistic demonstration as to how sextortion starts.

Stalking (5 out of 10)

Offline stalking with this app is very difficult to do, so long as users don’t share personal information with others, such as telling them where they live or go to school.

With its anonymous nature and limited profile, the only way that most people can be stalked on Kik is by not blocking people who might follow them on the app. Even if they do, people can easily create a new profile and stalk people and predators are known for having multiple accounts on each apps to stalk people and avoid being blocked. Some even use another account to create two distinct personalities – one to stalk and harass someone and another to befriend the person.

Viruses (10 out of 10)

Most of the accounts that I have blocked appear to be automated accounts (bots). They typically offer free nude pics to anyone who will follow the link provided. I have never followed any of the links, because it’s one of the easiest ways to allow viruses/malware access to your device.

I can’t say it any plainer than this: just don’t follow any link that you don’t absolutely know it’s origin and destination, no matter where it looks like it might be taking you. To see what I mean, read this article I wrote on malware and see just how easy it is for people to trick you.

Bottom Line

It’s all too easy for bad things to happen to good people on Kik. I’m not saying that the company does this intentionally, but I haven’t seen much in the way of the company helping prevent it. Bark, a company that provides parenting software for kids’ devices reported earlier this year that Kik has the most flagged app for severe sexual content.

To help navigate Kik as safely as possible, kids should do the following:

  1. Personally, I don’t trust any of the KiK accounts to be what they claim to be. Trust but verify is very difficult to practice here, as there are way too many accounts that seem to be something other than what they claim to be.
  2. Remember that links don’t always take you where they look like they may go. Never follow a link sent by someone to avoid the risks of having viruses and malware accidentally installed on your device.
  3. Avoid giving anyone information that can be used to help locate you to avoid giving a potential predator a way to track you down. That includes giving them an email address, credentials to a different social media account (very common on Kik) or personal information such as your address or phone number.

With four topics receiving a maximum of 10 and two that received a 9, Kik is an app that parents should think twice about before letting their kids use it.

As I mentioned earlier, I have already done a similar article here on Instagram as well as one on Whisper and will be doing more apps in the future, so please feel free to check back here for more articles on popular apps. You can also check out my other articles here on Pediatric Safety by visiting my profile and complete list of articles.

How Concerned Should Parents Be About Whisper?

Last updated on June 12th, 2021 at 01:03 pm

Whisper is an anonymous app, launched almost 10 years ago, where people post things that they might not want to admit to in public. While maybe not as well known by parents as some others, it has over 900 million accounts, according to the Washington Post and many of them are teens.

According to the Whisper’s own terms and conditions, users must be at least 13, but anyone under the age of 18 may only use the app under the supervision of a parent or legal guardian who agrees to their terms of use. They indicate that anyone who does not agree with these terms should simply not access or use the service. How often do you expect that happens?

While the company calls what people post on the app, “User Content”, most people simply call them either “Whispers” or “Secrets.” I’ve used Whisper and found it to be one of the most interesting apps out there. Of course, I fully expect that most of the “user content” is fake.

Assuming that people actually use it for its intended purpose, to secretly tell things about themselves and that they probably wouldn’t tell people they know, it’s probably harmless. But that’s clearly not all that happens on the app. Below is a graph for a grading system that I devised to help parents understand the risks involved for their children using popular apps. In my most recent article on Instagram, I explain in detail what the values on the graph mean and how using an app might endanger a child, but here it is below in a nutshell:

What the Numbers Mean:

The numbers / ratings represent the likelihood that you will see the risky behavior occur within this app.

  • Rating < 5 is minimal risk and is highly unlikely to occur on the platform, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t happen.
  • A rating of 5-6 is average risk – it should concern parents, but not overly so.
  • A rating of 7 or 8 is problematic and should concern parents quite a bit.
  • A 9 or 10 rating is very troubling as that behavior is almost a certainty within this app, and involves issues that are likely of extreme concern to parents, such as sextortion and child pornography.

Catfishing (10 out of 10)

As an “anonymous” app, there is no attempt made to identify the users. The profiles, what little of it there is on the app, don’t even include the possibility of a picture be added. That makes it perfect for people who don’t wish to be identified. When posting a secret on the app, users have the ability to upload a picture for that individual post, which may be of themselves or it may be one that they took from some other source. Additionally, Whisper has a large library of images available by users and the app will suggest images based on words typed by the user that get superimposed in front of the image.

Cyberbullying (8 out of 10)

The potential for cyberbullying exists anywhere. I’ve seen it on posts/apps where I would least expect it. With Whisper, it can often come from pictures that the person posted which were meant to be silly or sexy. Body shaming is pretty common in cases like this on Whisper, assuming that the image in the post is really of the person who posted it.

As another example, in a recent posting, a woman announced that her boyfriend had revealed online that they were engaged before she wanted it publicly known. Within just a few hours, there were well over 300 replies, many saying that she should be happy that he was excited to be engaged. In fact, the overwhelming majority of the replies were critical of the original post and a few were not polite about it, to say the least.

Language (8 out of 10)

There is virtually no filter on what people say on social media platforms and Whisper is no exception. On social media apps that are popular with kids, they may choose to intentionally spell words incorrectly, but close enough that the reader understands the message. For example, they may use “$” instead of “S” or “!” instead of “I.” Most likely, they are trying to avoid filters that search for specific keywords but considering how often I’ve seen posts on Whisper that have foul/inappropriate words on them, it seems likely that they have little to be concerned about in this area.

Nudity (8 out of 10)

This is a little bit of a gray area. Overall, I have seen very little, if any actual nudity on Whisper, but many images certainly push the boundaries. I have observed images showing both boys and girls in images that their parents would probably object to them using/seeing. As Whisper does allow people to send private messages between users, there may be cases where nudity is involved there, but I can’t say that for sure.

Privacy (6 out of 10)

As an anonymous app, this app has the advantage of not giving others easy access to users’ personal information. Facebook, for example, provides lots of opportunities for people to publicly share where they work, who they’re married to and more. So long as users practice common sense, there’s not too much risk of privacy being lost here. The risk with Whisper is how much personal information people are willing to share within their posts and through private messages. Let’s just hope that common sense prevails.

Sexting (8 out of 10)

This is a huge issue on the app. From what I can see, the majority of posts seem to have at least some sexual connotation to them. The rating would be higher than this based simply on the sheer volume of sexual content (explicit and implicit) on the app, however it is tempered somewhat by the anonymous nature of the app. It clearly has the potential for a higher rating, especially for an app that hosts groups with names such as Sexual Confessions, Horny People, etc.

Sextortion (6 out of 10)

Any app/site that has the potential for sexting also has the potential for sextortion – the act of forcing others to perform acts of a sexual nature online. This typically requires sending images or videos, which the recipient can then use against them to force them to send even more images or do just about anything else they want to avoid the images being made public.

It gets worse if the target provides their profile names for other sites/apps, which is common on Whisper. Unfortunately, it is very common to see people post their Snapchat or Instagram name on the account, (assuming that they’re providing their own information and not intentionally setting someone else up for online harassment).

Stalking (8 out of 10)

I recommend minors not use Whisper and that anyone who does use it disable the ability for the app to know their location. I say that because the app has a feature that will automatically include the location of where the picture was posted from. Other users then have the ability to search for posts made close to their current location.

A little over three years ago, a story made the news about a young girl who met a man on Whisper. She was only 14 but claimed to be 15-17 (Whisper uses age brackets). At some point, the man suggested that they switch over to a different app. At that point, he requested that she send him naked pictures of herself and she acquiesced. Eventually, they met in person, where he provided her with marijuana and eventually, sexually assaulted the young girl, according to authorities.

This was all possible because the predator was able to search geographically on the app to find potential targets. Online predators are very skilled at finding and recruiting, as I’ve written here on Pediatric Safety.

Another feature on Whisper is to find posts that were made recently. This lets predators hopefully find people before they have signed off and can engage them in a conversation. In theory, a good idea, but it is too easy for predators to exploit.

Viruses (3 out of 10)

Sending viruses via Whisper is all but impossible, from what I’ve seen. When entered as part of a secret, the words are there, but it has been converted to an image, not an active link. However, anyone who wished to send a virus could easily do so by placing it into a direct message to someone.

If they, in turn, copy/paste it into a browser, the virus could take effect. The tease of seeing naked pictures might entice someone to do that and with URL shorteners, it wouldn’t even look like a potential risky site.

Bottom Line

Whisper is riskier than it might appear were we to average the nine potential areas of concern. That is, an average would treat each of the concerns equally, but as parents, we may be more concerned with the areas of cyberbullying and sextortion than the risk of a virus. When it comes to using Whisper as safely as possible, there are some basic principles that all users, but especially kids, should follow:

  1. It may be cynical, however, assume that nobody is who they claim to be on Whisper. Trust, but verify doesn’t apply here because everyone is hiding behind a veil of anonymity.
  2. Assume that whatever you post on the app will be seen by everyone, not just the people who have access to seeing your posts. When taking the geographic search feature into account, it is very possible that people within your own community can see what you post on Whisper.
  3. Never, under any circumstances, post a picture of yourself, or anyone else for that matter, that you might regret later. It’s better to think of it not being a question of IF someone you know will see what you post, but WHEN will they see it. That includes parents, teachers, siblings, co-workers, etc.

Like most apps, Whisper can be fun to use, but it comes with risk and those risks need to be considered. As I mentioned earlier, I have already done a similar article here on Instagram and will be doing more apps in the future, so I recommend that you check back here for more articles on popular apps. You can also check out my other articles here on Pediatric Safety by visiting my profile and complete list of articles.

Should You ‘Friend’ Your Teens Online?

Last updated on March 16th, 2021 at 02:38 pm

A decade ago, reading your teen’s diary would have been the ultimate form of privacy invasion. Nowadays, checking out their Facebook page or Twitter feed can yield the same sense of betrayal — if they don’t know you’re doing so. So how does a parent protect their kids from the dangers lurking on the Internet? The answer may be to join them online.

Sites like Facebook are appealing to kids and adults alike (as evidenced by the number of your old high school classmates who’ll inevitably friend you when you sign up), so your kids won’t take issue with you having an account. The question is whether your should “friend” them. If you’re worried about the amount of time they’re spending online (and what parent isn’t?), go ahead and send them a friend request or start following them on Twitter. But do so with the agreement that you won’t do the following:

  1. Scold or reprimand them on their wall. You may be upset that they forgot to unload the dishwasher or didn’t take out the garbage, but Facebook and Twitter is not the place to air those feelings. Discuss the issue the old-fashioned way — face to face.
  2. Comment on their posts. You may be proud of the “A” they got on their latest math test or think the YouTube video of a cat singing the national anthem is just as hilarious as they do, but there’s no need to voice your opinion online. The more unobtrusive you are, the more likely your kids are to forget that you’re monitoring their activity.
  3. Friend or follow their friends. Your own kids probably aren’t thrilled that you’re a part of their social network, but they don’t really have a choice in the matter. But their friends are off-limits. Not only can friending their friends be a little creepy, but it’s also unnecessary. If you’re connected to your own child’s account, you’ll be able to see what their friends are posting as well.

In the end, even though the Internet can seem so anonymous, be transparent with your kids about your wanting to connect with them online. And when in doubt, follow the golden rule of friending them or commenting on their wall: Treat them how you’d want to be treated if you were them.

How Concerned Should Parents Be About Instagram?

Last updated on April 3rd, 2021 at 03:02 pm

The most popular social media app used by kids is YouTube, followed by Instagram. Owned by Facebook, its popularity has been steadily on the rise, as Facebook continues to work towards attracting a younger audience.

So, what should parents be concerned about when it comes to Instagram? Do you know what problems can exist online? Cyberbullying is the most commonly known problem for being online, but it’s hardly the only one. It may not even be the most serious one.

Below, I will discuss the potential risks as I see them when it comes to using Instagram.

What the Numbers Mean:

The numbers / ratings represent the likelihood that you will see the risky behavior occur within this app.

  • Rating < 5 is minimal risk and is highly unlikely to occur on the platform, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t happen. Most apps have some risk to them in all of the areas, but specific apps have a greater tendency for it to happen either by the features that the apps have or from sheer volume of use by kids.
  • A rating of 5-6 should concern parents, but not overly so. Few apps may rate less than 5 on areas of concern, but most have at least rating of 5-6. That goes true for apps that kids and adults use. Basically what it means is that the possibility of an issue coming up is possible, but not overly so.
  • A rating of 7 or 8 is problematic. Not only should parents be concerned that the behavior might happen, they should be prepared for when it will happen. It may not even by something that their child does deliberately. Many predators hunt for children on apps that they know kids will be likely to use and kids often send inappropriate content to each other without asking if it’s okay first. The problems in question may happen often or may be of a serious enough nature that apps with multiple ratings of this high should be considered high risk to parents who wish to keep their kids safe online.
  • A 9 or 10 rating is extremely concerning as that behavior is very likely – almost a certainty! It also involves issues that should be of extreme concern to parents, such as sextortion and child pornography. I’m not about to tell you how to parent your child, only to give advice. However, for any app that actually received a rating of 10 for one or more concerns, that’s an app that I will not let my own child use.

Catfishing (9 out of 10)

Like most social media sites, there is little, if any verification that the person using the account is who they say that they are. As this video shows, it is all too easy to pretend to be someone else online and just as easy to use it to trick others. It can go much farther than you might expect, as in the case of Notre Dame football star, Manti Te’o. Back in 2013, he was tricked into believing that he was in a romantic relationship with a woman he’d never even met!

Cyberbullying (8 out of 10)

The potential for cyberbullying exists anywhere, even on LinkedIn, believe it or not. With Instagram, it can often come from pictures that the person posted which were meant to be silly or sexy. Body shaming is pretty common in cases like this on Instagram.

In other cases, it can come from online games, such as “Hot or Not” and “Smash or Pass”, where a collage of people is posted and others indicate if they think specific people are attractive or not. Typically, the collage includes a picture of someone that the initial poster expects will be widely panned by others to entice others to participate.

Language (8 out of 10)

There is virtually no filter on what people say on social media platforms and Instagram is no exception. This can include vulgarity and even hate speech. Companies like Instagram may try to catch/eliminate hate speech, but overall, there is much that gets missed or intentionally left up on the site.

In the United States, Article 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 has become a hot topic of late. Essentially, it prevents social media companies from being held liable for what others post on their sites, declaring that while they host the content, they aren’t responsible for it. Other countries have similar laws on the books.

Nudity (8 out of 10)

Online nudity is something that I’ve been very concerned about and Instagram is one of the leading examples of why. In a previous article for Pediatric Safety, I explained more about what social media companies will allow and while there are some guidelines, there are plenty of accounts that post pictures and videos that most parents would probably not want their kids to see.

Many adult actors/actresses and lingerie companies have Instagram accounts that push those boundaries. Some even break them. Often, especially in the case of the adult entertainment industry, they use Instagram as a means of attracting people to another site where full nudity is allowed, often for a fee. Similar to language issues discussed above, there is just too much content and pictures are harder search for using technology than text to find inappropriate content.

Privacy (6 out of 10)

Most social media sites allow users to block specific people who troll or harass people. Instagram is one of the sites that allows users to block everyone, so that the account holder has to choose to let people see their account. Instagram calls that setting an account to “Private”. It’s a great feature that more people need to use if they want to limit what others see.

Sexting (7 out of 10)

While probably not the app of choice for sexting, it certainly has the potential for being used this way. That’s certainly true if they wish to include images that they wish to have seen by many people. The reason why this didn’t get a higher rating is because Instagram isn’t really the best app for direct messages between two people, but it is still a place where people can post racy images, as I mentioned above in the section that discusses nudity.

Sextortion (7 out of 10)

Once someone posts an image online that incudes intimate content, they open themselves up for sextortion – blackmail of a digital, sexual nature. Combined with being catfished, the video below is a very realistic example of how sextortion starts. I frequently show this video when I speak at schools or with parents’ groups and the looks I see in the audience never cease to surprise me.

Several years ago, a photographer from New York City caused a major stir when he took racy images, mainly from people’s Instagram accounts and turned them into pieces of art, which he sold in galleries for serious amounts of money without asking for permission. The courts determined that he didn’t need to ask for their permission or compensate them because of what is known as “fair use” laws.

If this can happen, then it’s not too hard to see how easily others might be able to use similar images for sextortion. While very illegal, if someone makes such posts, it opens them up to the possibility of sextortion later. The problem is that if the other person has already downloaded the image and the initial poster deletes it, it’s too late to stop someone from using the image against them. The best solution to this is to never post/send such pictures under any circumstances.

Stalking (8 out of 10)

As it relates to social media, stalking has two areas of concern: online and offline and they are more closely related than you might expect.

Privacy settings, as mentioned above, can help, by helping keep unwanted visitors from seeing what your kids post. Note that I said, helping, not eliminating/stopping. Nothing is foolproof when it comes to preventing social media posts from being seen by unwanted eyes. Nothing.

Even without online interaction, when someone has access to what an Instagram user posts, they can see what they’re doing by simply looking at their posts. This is pretty common between romantic partners after they break up. Even if one person severs the relationship on Instagram, unless their account is set to private, there is nothing stopping the other person from creating another Instagram account and seeing what they post (see above, Catfishing).

Viruses (4 out of 10)

Instagram posts themselves rarely have links in them. That’s because Instagram does not support live links in posts. If a link is included on a post, viewers need to copy/paste it into a web browser and most people simply won’t do that. What can happen though, is a live link can be part of the user’s profile. Posts then indicate that there is a link in the profile for people who wish to “see more” than what they’re seeing on a single post. That post can be to anywhere and it can download virus/malware onto a device.

Bottom Line

What does all this mean? Overall Instagram’s scores seemed pretty high. The fact is they were, and many apps that are popular with kids may look similar. Digging into the details is where you’ll see the subtle differences that will help you, as parents, determine where you need to focus in order to keep your kids safe. When it comes to Instagram, there are some basic principles that all users, but especially kids, should follow:

  1. Trust, but verify – Be wary of what you share with people online and who you accept to follow you on Instagram. Start by setting your Instagram account to private. Whenever possible, confirm off of the app if someone requests to follow you; making sure that they really are who they claim to be.
  2. Assume that whatever you post on Instagram will be seen by everyone, not just the people who have access to seeing your posts. There are many different ways that can sidestep privacy settings, so while they are a good first step, they should not be assumed to be 100% safe.
  3. Never follow links posted by people on Instagram, even if they are your friends. They may have been duped into sharing a link that introduces a virus. Only links from well-known, reputable sources should be followed.

By following these simple guidelines, Instagram can be a fun app to use. For additional information on how to protect yourself and your children on Instagram, check out Instagram’s Help Center.

If you enjoyed this article, please be sure to check back here, as I plan on reviewing other popular apps used by kids using this same method. You can also check out all of my articles here on Pediatric Safety by visiting my profile and complete list of articles.

Preparing Our Kids for Global Digital Citizenship Success

Last updated on March 16th, 2021 at 03:13 pm

We’ve all heard how our world is getting smaller – how our digital connectivity is conquering distance and outpacing time. But how does this closeness shape the way we interact with each other? More importantly, how does it affect our youth?

This is the reality: The way young people socialize online deeply affects the relationships they have with themselves and the people around them. We have to acknowledge that our kids meet and connect emotionally through their digital devices. They cultivate relationships through a number of virtual world connections – by joining social networks and receiving status updates; building lists of friends and groups; and receiving IMs, texts and video messages.

After hearing countless news stories about identity theft, sexting and cyberbullying, we’ve made the frightening discovery that sometimes wires and signals can separate actions from consequences. And we’ve seen our children’s misguided belief in anonymity slink in easy as pie and place their security, reputations and lives at risk.

But things are changing. Media literacy and global digital citizenship are quickly becoming the key issues in education and law enforcement. Dialogue surrounding the consumption and production of information across connected technologies is growing at a heartwarming rate.

And leaders are working alongside students, using their experience with the Internet, cell phones, MP3 players and gaming devices to create a framework around kids and teens worldwide successfully learning how to be good to each other while engaging in new media activities.

Twenty years ago, good citizenship took place in the microcosm of the classroom and was simply rewarded with a certificate. Today, with its millennial twist, global digital citizenship reaches far beyond the playground fence. Its stewards are enriched with a much deeper understanding of how their actions affect their own lives as well as those of their peers, at home and around the world.

That’s why students must take an active role in identifying and establishing ethical digital use. They need to be involved in the critical thinking and policy creation that affects ultimate change. It’s called buy-in, and these days our savvy students require it if they’ll be expected to have a healthy relationship with technology.

Defining successful global digital citizenship matters to all of us because it profoundly touches our youngest technocrats. Although they are swift enough to sync their social media profiles on their cells, they may not be equipped to handle the overwhelming cyber situations that erupt from uniformed decisions.

We all want to keep our kids safe, but that won’t happen if we create barriers and block device usage. It is only when we empower them to explore their connected world that they will be keyed into the pitfalls and advantages of social navigation across all platforms.

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