The leading U.K. children’s charity, the NSPCC, has claimed that Instagram has become the leading platform for child grooming in the country. The research was based on freedom of information requests covering an 18-month period to September last year, during which there were more than 5,000 recorded crimes “of sexual communication with a child,” and “a 200% rise in recorded instances in the use of Instagram to target and abuse children.”
The charity’s CEO, Peter Wanless, said that “these figures are overwhelming evidence that keeping children safe cannot be left to social networks. We cannot wait for the next tragedy before tech companies are made to act. It is hugely concerning to see the sharp spike in grooming offenses on Instagram, and it is vital that the platform designs basic protection more carefully into the service it offers young people.”
The primary age group being targeted was 12-15 years of age, although there were many victims under the age of 11 and some as young as five. The NSPCC expects the real number of cases to be much higher than those reported to the police. The charity has an ongoing campaign, #WildWestWeb, calling for statutory regulation of social media. “On average,” they claim, “ten online grooming offenses are recorded every single day by the police in the U.K. Social networks have become a gateway for child abuse. Unregulated and unsafe, they’re simply not doing enough to protect children.”
The U.K.’s Net Aware service shows the two highest risk areas for Instagram as sexual content and bullying.
Is Regulation Now Inevitable?
Sky News quoted a spokesperson from the U.K.’s National Crime Agency spokesman saying: “It is vital that online platforms used by children and young people have in place robust mechanisms and processes to prevent, identify and report sexual exploitation and abuse, including online grooming. Children and young people also need easy access to mechanisms allowing them to alert platforms to potential offending.”
Last month, on ‘Safer Internet Day’, Margot James MP, the U.K.’s Minister for Digital said that “online safety is a top priority for the Government and we want to make the U.K. the safest place in the world to be online. We will soon be publishing an Online Harms White Paper which will set out clear expectations for companies to help keep their users, particularly children, safe online.” She added that the White Paper “will set out new legislative measures to ensure that the platforms remove illegal content and prioritize the protection of users, especially children, young people and vulnerable adults.”
Also in February, 27-year-old Carl Hodgson and 38-year-old Carl Joneswere both jailed in the U.K. for separate incidences of sexual contact with children. Both had used Instagram as part of their grooming campaigns.
“After 10 years of failed self-regulation by social networks,” the NSPCC’s Wanless added, “it is crucial that the Government’s imminent Online Harms White Paper includes new laws that tackle online grooming once and for all.”
More Of The Same
In January, Instagram was implicated in a number of teen suicides in the U.K., prompting the Children’s Commissioner to write to social media organizations. “With great power comes great responsibility,” she told them, “and it is your responsibility to support measures that give children the information and tools they need growing up in this digital world – or to admit that you cannot control what anyone sees on your platforms.”
That followed a terrible 2018 for Facebook’s PR machine: fake news; Cambridge Analytica; congressional hearings; the founders of WhatsApp and Instagram heading for the exit; data breaches and data leaks; and slowing growth. But then in January, the company’s results for the final quarter were released, revenue and earnings were up ahead of consensus, and management, shareholders and analysts relaxed. “Facebook is done apologizing,” explained Bloomberg. “For a moment during the earnings call, I closed my eyes and swore it was the glory days of 2015.”
There was an acknowledgment with the results presentations of the value Instagram brings to the company and the need to bring it closer to the core, with a view that the photo-sharing platform could become the prime driver of Facebook’s ad revenue growth in the coming years. Thus far, Instagram has pulled off the trick of appearing detached from Facebook. The ‘young and cool’ are on Instagram, and whilst most also have Facebook accounts, they’ll often tell you they no longer post or share on the platform. Even recent issues that have hit Instagram – a lack of transparency around paid-for posts, the hosting of dangerous imagery, the Fyre Festival – have more to do with the behavior of users than the activities of the platform itself.
But this appears to have changed. A spokesperson for Instagram has now said: “Keeping young people safe on our platforms is our top priority and child exploitation of any kind is not allowed. We use advanced technology and work closely with the police to aggressively fight this type of content and protect young people.”
An Industry Problem
This is an issue that extends across social media and is certainly not specific to Instagram. In the last few days, YouTube has responded to claims that its platform was being used to facilitate child exploitation. “We disabled comments from tens of millions of videos that could be subject to predatory behavior,” they said in a blog post. “These efforts are focused on videos featuring young minors and we will continue to identify videos at risk over the next few months. Over the next few months, we will be broadening this action to suspend comments on videos featuring young minors and videos featuring older minors that could be at risk of attracting predatory behavior.”
The clamor for regulation of social media gets louder by the week. According to Pew Research, almost half of American teens claim to be online “almost constantly”, with the social media platforms YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter predominating. Approaching 60% of teens have been bullied or harassed online, with 90% acknowledging it as a real issue.
In an interview with Business Insider this week, U.K. Minister Margot James has said that the threat of financial sanctions against the leading social media platforms is set to become very real if toxic content and bad behaviors are not brought under control.
Already in 2019, we have seen headline after headline around data exploitation and ruthless commercialization across social media, and now this. The question is around the level of intent on behalf of the platforms to change, despite the threat of regulation. There’s a fear that restrictions are unlikely to carry much weight across hundreds of countries and billions of users. Instagram parent Facebook’s answer to its PR challenges of 2019 was to post a set of record financial results.