How Instagram broadcasts live sex acts to kids
*Content warning: this article describes real events that may be distressing for readers
As a researcher and campaigner advocating for an end to the objectification of women and sexualisation of girls, I follow dozens of underage girls on Instagram. They are aspiring models, gymnasts and dancers. They pose in swimwear and leotards. I watch how they use Instagram to promote a new brand-name bikini, or to exhibit their latest ventures in flexibility: an attempt at oversplits or a contorted backbend. Some of the girls have hundreds of thousands of followers. We - their followers - didn't have to look for them: Instagram’s search , ‘Explore’ and ‘Suggested for you’ features served them to us in an algorithm-procured gallery of pre-pubescents and young teens that caters to the predator’s eye.
An Instagram feed filled with prepubescent girls in bikinis
The setting is a picture of after-school normality: an average kitchen in a home in Australian suburbia. Two girls in school uniform do what kids up and down the eastern seaboard are doing: arriving home after a long day of school, they dump their school bags and head to the kitchen to make a snack.
One of the girls - 14 according to information on her Instagram account - casually picks up her phone. Still in her uniform (easily providing information about what school she attends and where) she opens Instagram and with a tap of an icon starts a live post: a livestream video that her followers can watch. Instagram even promotes the live broadcast. I, one of her 12,000 algorithm-procured followers - and one of hordes of strangers whose identities, whereabouts and motives for watching a 14 year old girl are unknown - get an Instagram notification that she’s started a ‘live’. I click her avatar to start the livestream, and instantly I’m transported into the family kitchen. The girl and her friend occupy the foreground, creating a soundtrack with teenage chatter. In the background is a fridge plastered with photos, bills and reminders – artefacts of average family life.
One of the 50+ viewers makes a request to ‘be in’ the ‘live’. This request is one of Instagram’s built-in live-post features that allows viewers to interact with the host via a simultaneous, live video broadcast which the other viewers can see. The girl accepts the request, smiling curiously at the screen as she scans viewers’ incoming comments. As she does, my screen splits horizontally, making way for the viewer’s live video broadcast.
The viewer is a man. He is naked. And he is masturbating.
The girl bursts into nervous laughter and steps out of view, leaving viewers to watch the fridge and the man. He repositions his phone to show his genitals from a different angle before his school girl host returns, hand over mouth, and ends his live video. With the screen to herself again, she continues her live post giggling, while, from off-camera, her friend makes a comment to the effect that they shouldn’t be laughing: it’s not funny. But they don’t appear all that shocked. It’s almost as if this isn’t the first time a stranger has made a sexual approach this way, as though this after-school event is also normal. Parents aren’t told, no alarm is raised. They continue with their live post - even accepting another viewer’s request to be in the live post.
An underage girl has just – with no moderation or intervention from the global multi-billion dollar Facebook-owned platform - broadcast a live video of a naked man masturbating. She and her friend - and fifty other people - just witnessed a serious criminal act, prohibited by Australia’s Commonwealth, state and territory child exploitation material laws.
Who else witnessed the live sex act? Other school friends? Perhaps younger children – cousins or neighbours who tuned in to catch up on some big-girl news? How widely did Instagram disseminate this piece of child exploitation material that it failed to moderate and helped produce? How many times is this scene being played out in Australia each day? How many kitchens and bathrooms and bedrooms of Australian homes are being infiltrated by predators who want to abuse underage girls in this way? How many men are using Instagram to broadcast live sex acts to children? Has this type of criminal behaviour become ‘normal’ for girls who have been desensitised to predatory advances because sexual objectification, harassment and predation are so entrenched in their everyday, lived experiences? Why - in flagrant disregard of human rights, law, child safety principles and common sense - is Instagram connecting predators to minors?
Four days later our concerns that this event was not a one-off, that predators are targeting underage girls for the purpose of broadcasting live sex acts to them and that this is 'normal' for some girls were confirmed when we found the public Instagram account of a 9 year old girl based in Europe. She had saved a live post to her profile, allowing anyone to watch it for the 24-hour period that followed. We watched the video and saw that it was interupted several times as the young girl accepted requests from different viewers to be in the broadcast. We counted three different viewers who filmed themselves masturbating. We then followed the girl. Within an hour we received a notification from Instagram that she had started a live post. We began viewing the video immediately and within seconds she accepted a viewer's request to be in the broadcast. It was another naked, masturbating man.
In the week since I first saw men masturbating via live videofeed at those girls, I have not been able to erase the images from my mind. These are among the most disturbing things I’ve come across since my colleagues and I began investigating hundreds of predatory approaches to underage girls through their Instagram pages. Within a short time of making a report to Instagram about the 9 year old girl her account was removed. But how many backup accounts does she have? How long until she creates a new account? How long until Instagram reconnects her old followers to her? How long before they're again using Instagram as a webcam to broadcast live sex acts to her and other children? How many other victims are there? And what does the future hold for these girls who have been groomed by Instagram's predators to believe that men exposing and rubbing their genitals at them is normal? Will they be safe from unwanted sexual advances from their bosses and colleagues? From strangers? Will the #MeToo movement mean anything for them? Will others enable men to harass or commit other heinous, sexual crimes against them, the way Instagram did in their childhood?
Our investigation began last July and demonstrated how Instagram serves as a pedophile directory and forum. We reported web-based pedophile forums containing direct links to underages girls’ Instagram accounts, in which pedophiles described violent sex abuse fantasies involving Instagram’s child models, gymnasts and dancers - girls as young as one. We reported multiple examples of child exploitation material.
In November 2019, Collective Shout, in coalition with the National Centre on Sexual Exploitation in the US and Defend Dignity in Canada, launched #WakeUpInstagram - an international campaign to hold Instagram and Facebook executives accountable for the exploitation and predation of underage girls on their platform to try to leverage our combined weight to force the platforms to act.
We then wrote to Instagram’s Head of Global Policy with some of our key discoveries, including countless sexualised and predatory comments made by men to underage girls, and to ask Instagram to address its widespread child predator problem. In the letter we made several recommendations and asked Instagram to stop adults from contacting minors during live posts. Having viewed several live posts hosted by girls as young as 11, we knew that men were using ‘lives’ to harass and solicit sexualised content from minors.
Three months later – while Instagram’s investigations continued - we witnessed yet another example of how Instagram caters to predators and even facilitates criminal behaviour, and how girls’ safety and well-being are sidelined. Instead of safeguarding children, Instagram is bringing child predators - naked and masturbating in real-time - into their homes.
Instagram’s catchphrase rings of utopian ideals of boundless connectivity: “Bringing you closer to the people and things you love”. When juxtaposed against our discoveries which show that the ‘people’ are often predators, and the ‘things’ they love are underage girls, the slogan rings sinister. Nowhere in society are we fostering connections between child predators and children. In fact we are vigilant in our efforts to prevent such connections. Why are the rules different for social media companies? Shouldn’t Instagram not only stop connecting predators to children but work fastidiously to prevent these connections?
Instagram does prevent certain adult-child connections: those between parents and their children. According to its “Tips for Parents” Instagram can’t - due to privacy laws - give a parent access to their 13+ year old child’s account. But an Instagram-procured predator who wants to masturbate at a child has the freedom to do so.
In a timely report, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children highlighted some of the dangers of social media that we - through the #WakeUpInstagram campaign - are calling on Instagram's corporate leaders to address:
'Offenders, traffickers and criminal groups use Internet tools, such as social media, to identify child victims more easily and establish relationships, subsequently intimidating them into exploitative situations.'
The report further pointed out that offenders are empowered by impunity:
'Ultimately, the essential feature of most offenders is their knowledge or belief that their actions will go unpunished'.
Our investigations have shown that predators are fed a steady stream of victims via Instagram’s algorithms and that predators are free to roam and prey at will, not just with impunity but with the endorsement of moderators who tell us their behaviour ‘doesn’t go against community guidelines’.
Australia is at the forefront of global efforts to improve online safety. The Office of the eSafety Commissioner’s user-centred initiative, Safety by Design, was the outcome of consultation with industry, service providers, parents and young people and resulted in a set of principles that prioritises user rights and safety. Safety by Design highlights the imperative role of service providers like Instagram in the broader context of shared responsibility for online safety. It spells out eight initiatives designed to 'ensure that known and anticipated harms have been evaluated in the design and provision of an online service'.
In the same week we witnessed how Instagram is used by sex predators to broadcast live sex acts to children, its parent company Facebook committed to a set of new, voluntary standards developed by the Five Country Ministerial (represented by government Ministers of Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand) to combat online child sexual exploitation and abuse.
Can Instagram abide by these principles and standards without a drastic overhaul to its ethos and operations? While it is underpinned by ideals like boundless connectivity which connects child predators to children? While it stands by community guidelines that accommodate the sexual harassment of little girls? While it indiscriminately gives its users tools - like 'Explore' and live posts - which predators can use to find child victims and commit sexual crimes against them?
As Campaigns Manager Caitlin Roper warned:
'We cannot overlook the significance of a wider culture that sexualises children and treats them as appropriate objects of men’s sexual desire.'
Instagram - through its predator-friendly policies and practises - has fostered a community that fetishises underage girls and helped fuel a culture that normalises their sexualisation and harassment. Now - as well as upholding the principles it has committed to, Instagram must work to eradicate its child predator community, and to foster a culture in which the sexualisation, harassment, exploitation and abuse of children is unthinkable. We owe it to girls and women - this and future generations - to make sure they do.
- If you are concerned about suspected online child exploitation material, make a report to the eSafety Office.
- If you are concerned about an adult behaving inappropriately online toward a child, make a report to the Australian Federal Police.
- Make an anonymous report to Crime Stoppers or phone their toll free number 1800 333 000.
On Safer Internet Day, Collective Shout: for a world free of sexploitation, calls on Instagram to take urgent action to stop rampant sex trafficking, child sexual abuse grooming and the fetishisation of underage girls on its social media platform. Safer Internet Day is a worldwide event marked in 150 countries that began in 2004, to raise awareness about online safety and creating a better internet.
Collective Shout has carried out an investigation into the behaviour of predators on Instagram. We collected hundreds of samples of sexual, predatory comments on the posts of underage girls - some as young as 7. These included comments by adult men about girls bodies, body parts, sex-abuse acts they would like to carry out on the girls and requests for nude images. We also found that sexualised images of children posted on Instagram, shared under the guise of child modelling, were then shared to paedophile forums where men discuss their sexual fantasies for children.
Some Instagram accounts featuring sexualised imagery of children offer paid subscriptions to ‘exclusive content’, with one allowing men to purchase bikini shots of a 13- year-old girl washing a dog.
Instagram claims to be using proactive technology to ensure the platform is safe for children. However Collective Shout campaigner Lyn Swanson Kennedy said when she reported the content she discovered, Instagram countered that ‘no community guidelines’ had been breached. Some predatory comments had been left more than a year with no action from Instagram.
"What we’ve found shows that sexualisation and harassment of underage girls on Instagram is rampant,” Swanson Kennedy said. By giving adult males unfettered access to children and facilitating the transmission of sexual comments Instagram is complicit in normalising the idea that girls are available for sexual gratification. This puts girls at risk.
"If these mega social media companies are going to allow minors on their platform, they must provide adequate measures to keep children safe from sexual predators”.
Collective Shout is partnering with the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (USA) and Defend Dignity (Canada) in a campaign calling on Instagram to change its policies. In December Collective Shout wrote to Instagram’s Global Head of Policy Karina Newton with evidence from our investigation.
Collective Shout representatives will take part in a meeting with platform heads this month.
11 February 2020
Lyn Swanson Kennedy [lyn at collectiveshout.org]
Melinda Liszewski [melinda.l at collectiveshout.org]
Instagram is a haven for child predators and a host to the broadcasting of child sex abuse fantasies. Contrary to corporate claims that there's 'no place' for content that exploits or endangers children, exploitative, graphic and degrading comments directed at underage girls are rampant on the Facebook-owned platform.
Our campaign partners at National Center on Sexual Exploitation met with Instagram heads last December to discuss the ways Instagram puts children at risk and how child safety on Instagram could be improved. Instagram said that the matter of predatory comments will be investigated.
Meanwhile, men continue to use Instagram to harass and fetishise little girls. See below for our latest roundup of child sex abuse fantasies and other predatory comments freely broadcast on Instagram. We will continue to expose and call out this predatory behaviour!
Take action today!
Each week we find new evidence that underage girls are at risk from predators on Instagram. We've rounded up some of the worst, recent examples of predatory comments we've come across and shared these below. Some of the comments depict male fantasies for carrying out violent sex abuse acts on little girls.
There should be no room anywhere for these comments, and that's why we are continuing to call on Instagram heads to stop the fetishisation and harassment of little girls that is happening on their platform. Join our campaign and help #WakeUpInstagram to child exploitation. Learn how here.
Join the Twitter conversation by tagging @collectiveshout and using #WakeUpInstagram and #InstaPimpsGirls.
(Addressed to Instagram Global Head of Policy)
December 4, 2019
Widespread predation of underage girls on Instagram
We have identified and collected hundreds of comments posted by men on the Instagram pages of underage girls between August and the time of writing. These include grooming-style comments, sexually harassing comments, requests for sexualised content (including nudes), requests for direct messages and for images to be sent via DM. Large numbers of comments are porn-themed. Men describe in explicit detail sexual abuse fantasies involving the underage girls whose identities and locations are often exposed, placing them at risk of further sexual exploitation. (We have compiled some of the most graphic comments here.)
Inadequate tools for keeping children safe
These predatory comments exist in plain view, unmoderated and unremoved. In some cases they have remained for more than a year - including on posts of girls as young as 4-years- old. Our reports to Instagram are often dismissed as not violating its ‘community guidelines’. Recent examples of dimissed comments include: (on a 13-year-old girl’s post) ‘Omg i sooooo wanna (emoji denoting) lick your (emoji denoting) pussy n (emoji dentoing) ass’; (on a child advertising underwear) ‘Ok im going out of line you put it on i take it off’; ( on a 9- year-old girl’s post) ‘please open your legs’ + emojis including kiss-lips; (various comments on underage girls’ posts) eggplant/peach/cucumber/squirt emojis denoting sexual acts. If these comments are not deemed in violation of whatever standards you use to determine whether content you host is in breach or not, perhaps those standards need to be revised?
There is also a serious shortcoming in Instagram’s reporting system. While comments can be reported as ‘harassment/bullying’ or as ‘violence/threat of violence’, there is no option which properly conveys the serious predatory and grooming nature of these comments. Instagram’s reporting system should include “sexualised/predatory/grooming comment directed at a minor” as its own category.
Instagram also needs to take action to prohibit adults from using ‘live’ posts to contact minors. We have viewed a 13-year-old girl’s live posts during which she was bombarded with sexual comments including a request for sex, questions about her underwear, a man telling her he wanted her to give him an erection, another saying he would pay to meet her and others pressuring her to remove her shoes and show her feet.
We note your statement about having “proactive technology” to keep the platform free from content that is harmful to children. Whatever methods Instagram has employed to date are insufficient for dealing with the rampant predation of children that we have documented. (Our response to Facebook’s official statement here.)
Instagram connects predators to children
Instagram is catering to the fantasy and fetishises of child predators. Through its ‘explore’ feature it directly connects predators with more underage girls. This appears to go directly against your own policies prohibiting content which endangers or exploits children . Regardless of the intended purposes of this feature, the reality is that it results in pointing predators directly to the girls they are preying on (virtually or in real life). Instagram should stop its ‘explore’ feature from promoting minors’ pages and connecting predators with children.
We have documented several Instagram pages devoted to republishing images of girls and young women in bikinis or in various modeling, gymnastics or dance poses. Posts on these pages frequently tag the child’s account with captions instructing others to follow the child. Some pages mix images of very young girls with porn-themed and pin-up style images of older teens and young women. These accounts serve as magnets for predators pointing them directly to more children. Instagram has responded to our reports of these accounts that they do not go against ‘community standards’. Instagram should properly investigate these parasite pages. Your company should also prohibit the republishing of images of children on pages that also feature pornified images of adults.
Instagram serves as supplier for pedophile forums
We have documented the names of hundreds of underage models, gymnasts and dancers on pedophile forums. We’ve reviewed a selection of the profile pages and found that every one contains direct links to the child’s Instagram account/s. We’ve also reviewed several forum pages and have evidence that Instagram is the primary source of images shared to the forums where men write explicitly about sex-abuse acts they’d like to carry out on individual girls. We have evidence of an individual commenting on an underage girl’s Instagram post to direct others to the forums.
Instagram accounts used to promote sale of images/videos of children
Some underage girls’ accounts are used to advertise monetised website subscriptions where men purchase exclusive photos and videos of children. Other accounts promote links to personal web pages where fans can purchase posters, calendars and photo/video packages. Underage girls also use Instagram to promote accounts on other social media platforms where sexualised content is under even less scrutiny, placing minors in further danger of being targeted by predators. We believe that Instagram must cease acting as an advertising service for individuals selling images/videos of minors.
The evidence we have gathered demonstrates the sexual exploitation of underage girls on Instagram. Your company is allowing predators almost unfettered access to them. Content hosted on your platform violates their right to grow up free from activity that harms them (United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 36). Because of how common predatory behaviour has now become on Instagram, girls learn to think of it as normal which sets them up for even more harm.
We urge Instagram to prioritise this issue and act in a way that places the wellbeing of vulnerable young people above the interests of predators and reflects accepted standards of corporate social responsibility and ethical behaviour.
- Revise ‘Community Standards’ so that all sexualised, predatory and grooming-style comments (text, slang, short-hand, hashtags, emojis and graphics) qualify as violations.
- Add ‘sexualised/predatory/grooming comment directed at a minor’ as a reporting category.
- Prohibit adults from using ‘live’ posts to contact minors.
- Update Instagram’s system used to detect and remove sexualised, predatory comments.
- Recognising that Instagram serves as a supply source of images of children for web-based pedophile forums, update all relevant policies, guidelines and help documents (including ‘A Parent’s Guide to Instagram’) so that users are properly informed of the risks of sharing images of children to the platform.
- Stop the ‘explore’ feature from promoting minors’ pages and connecting predators with children.
- Investigate parasite pages that are exclusively devoted to republishing photos of minors, deleting pages where children are sexualised, harassed, groomed or where any type of predatory comments/behaviour is displayed.
- Prohibit the republishing of images of minors on Instagram pages that also feature porn-style images of adults.
A coalition of women’s rights groups in Australia, Canada and the United States has called on the photo-sharing giant Instagram to introduce tough new protections for young girls using the site.
The campaign with the hash-tag Wake Up Instagram says the platform is used to groom and harass adolescent and even pre-teen girls who post photographs.
The coalition has collected hundreds of sexually graphic comments posted by men. Its Australian spokeswoman is Melinda Tankard-Reist from the organisation Collective Shout.Read more