teens

'I was on my daughter's Instagram account when I saw a sexual photo of a young girl.'

SBS The Hunting
Thanks to our brand partner, SBS The Hunting

My daughter is nine, and for months she’s been begging for an Instagram account. Recently, I caved in, and created an account in her name.

I see every message and every post – because I actually control it. I have her account logged in on my phone 24/7, so at the click of a button I can switch between my personal account and hers.

I used to use mine for my small home business, and it served me well. I became very savvy with how it worked.

I guess I’m lucky in this respect, because I knew how important it is to keep a good eye on my daughter’s account.

Her account is on private settings. I know the password, she doesn’t. I’m the one who posts her pictures and captions (obviously with her input). I’m usually the one who tells her when a friend has messaged her as she’s really not on it much.

But last week, I had an experience I can’t get out of my mind. It involved child pornography.

For context, my daughter’s account is predominantly used to message friends and share photos of her dance and acrobatic skills, skateboarding videos and some holiday snaps. She follows school friends and dance friends and the odd tween celebrity here and there. She only follows dance and acrobatic hashtags so that’s what comes up in her feed.

We have four rules, and they’re pretty simple:

  1. I log her in and out on her iPad.
  2. She does not post anything without my help/approval.
  3. Only positive talk/comments.
  4. I must approve every ‘follow request’ to make sure we know who they are.

She broke rule 4.

how to protect your teenager online
We may not always know what goes on in our kids' Instagrams, but we can try our best to protect them. Image: Getty.

We were all sitting on the lounge and I knew she was on it. I didn’t know she had just received a request from a girl who (by looking at her profile information), was mutual friends with girls she knows from dancing. Her info also said she was 12, and went to our local high school. So my daughter accepted her. Innocent enough, right? Except she just broke one of our rules right under my nose. That’s kids for you!

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I must say however, I was very proud of what she did next. She leaned over and said, “Mum, look at this girl, she’s a bit inappropriate.”

I took one look at this girl’s photos and something felt off. She was posing very sensually (if that’s even the right word) for a 12 year old, wearing tiny clothes and looking suggestively at the camera. Of course, girls have the right to dress however they like, but I felt uncomfortable about the images I was seeing.

It was clear my daughter had broken the rules, so she apologised, and I told her to get off the iPad. I took over, and was about to report the account to Instagram when strange messages started coming through.

“Hi, how old are you? I’m 12.
Are you from Australia?
Do you like to dance?
Which year are you in?
Where are you from?
I love dancing.”

The messages were quick, with almost no break for a reply. I immediately thought this wasn’t a young local girl. So I put on my ‘detective hat’ and responded, pretending to be my daughter.

Me: “Who takes your pics for you?”

Girl: “ I use timer. I can teach you! I go to [redacted] school. Here’s my ID card.”

Me: “Cool. What Primary School did you go to?”

Girl: “[Redacted] school”

Me: “I have friends that go there! Who do you know from there?”

Girl: “I like photography.”

Then nothing for a minute or so.

Until the image popped up.

Up flashed a picture that I will never forget. It was of the same young girl in the photos and a boy the same age. They were completely naked, and I’ll spare you the horrible details. The girl had her hair and makeup done, with big earrings. They were both smiling and staring straight at the camera. I felt sick. But I am so grateful it was me that took the brunt of it, and not my daughter.

I responded immediately by saying I would be reporting the photo. I got the response: “So? What can they do? Her phone was hacked. I have her nudes.”

I didn't know who was on the other end of these messages. I reported it to Instagram. I took a screenshot of everything and instantly blurred out the kid’s genitals as I was very uncomfortable and distressed. I rang the police. They took it all very seriously and came to my house to talk and get all my shots.

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The next part saddened me.

Even though the person used our local high school ID with a photoshopped image, claimed to be from our home town, and was following/being followed by a number of local kids, the police said there was nothing they could do with Instagram. They said the images were probably taken from a child pornography website. All we could do was spread the word and notify parents and schools.

So here I am.

I’ve already shared this story on my Facebook and Instagram, my daughter’s school page and neighbourhood watch pages on Facebook. The Principal at the school involved has been notified. I’ve since heard back from numerous local parents thanking me as their child has now opened up to them about seeing this image (or similar) or that their friends at school had told them about it. Other parents have thanked me because after checking, they found their child’s account was not on private like they had thought.

So, I’m not here to tell anyone how to parent. I make no judgement if your child has their own account and it’s not monitored. Also, no judgement if your teenager has one and you’ve never even looked at it. I just want to let people know how to do a little safety check.

Talk to your child. Tell them this story. Make sure their profile is on private. Ask them to show you their ‘follower’ list. Especially if they have over 100 followers – ask them if they really ‘know’ all these people. Just because someone looks like a sweet young girl that appears to be a friend of a friend, once you accept that follow request, it allows that person to send you messages (or horrific images), and take screen shots of all your photos.

Also, make sure they don’t have their town or school in their profile information, that only helps potentially dangerous strangers to make connections and trick kids, like in our case.

If your child has been involved in something like this, the government eSafety website recommends the following:

  • Stay calm and reassure your child they are not in trouble.
  • Explain that even adults get tricked into doing things they regret.
  • Talk to them without being judgemental or angry and make them feel that they can come to you with anything, without fear of being punished.
  • Do not cut off your child’s internet access as they will see this as punishment and not open up to you in future.

Parenting today is so tricky with social media. I’m not doing everything perfectly, but I’m trying my best. That fake account has now been deleted, but the person will just create another one in a new name. All I can say is, beware. Even when you think you’re doing everything right and being so careful, things can go wrong.

With knowledge and open conversation, we have more of a chance of fostering a safe space online for our kids.

Alana Woods is a 37-year-old teacher and mum of two.

SBS has launched an online educational toolkit to help parents talk to their kids about issues around sex and cyber-safety, in conjunction with their groundbreaking new four-part series The Hunting. For more information, visit www.sbs.com.au/learn/the-hunting.

SBS The Hunting

Asher Keddie and Richard Roxburgh explore sex, trust and consent in new Australian drama The Hunting, from August 1st on SBS and SBS On Demand. Watch the trailer here.

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