First off, my story is not unique. I’m a mom. A Navy veteran. A wife. A Photographer. A Videographer. A Marketer. Okay, I wear a lot of hats. I have been very active on Facebook because I enjoy sharing pictures, videos, stories with friends and family who are literally all over the world. It’s a great thing. I have my Facebook page set on private and I always give myself special rules before I let a new person into my online life:
Do I actually know this person?
Do I want to have a relationship with them?
Do I want to see their content?
I block people who post things that are disturbing to my life only because I want my social media feed to be uplifting and a happy place.
Now, hang in there.
About two months ago, I made the leap and also got an Instagram account for my photography business. I have clients whose businesses I market online. It got me thinking. I probably should do the same for my own, right?
I slowly started posting pictures of some photo shoots I did with my son’s team. Soon, I started getting some attention online, mainly by other sports photographers and wrestling parents. And then I saw that someone by the name of ilikestrongkids50 ‘liked’ my son’s picture. I went to his account and saw that it was private, so I put in a request to follow. Hey, if you’re looking at my pictures, only fair, right? Then, I forgot about it.
My youngest son, Cole has been wrestling for just under a year and he absolutely loves it. He’s made many friends that he spends 6 days a week with. He pushes himself and his teammates to each other’s limits. I couldn’t be prouder of him for all the work he’s putting in and the growth he’s gone through as a person over this past year. To win tournaments (and lose) is very emotional for him and his team as they become stronger together. I’m the team photographer and videographer during every tournament, and I love capturing these moments.
August 2nd and 3rd was a huge tournament in San Diego hosted by RMN on the San Diego Broadway Pier, and championship rounds were actually on the flight deck of the USS Midway! There were 2,000 wrestlers from 5 to 18 years old that competed from all over the country. My son was looking forward to that tournament for a long time. I snapped some fun team pictures before, during, and after the event. Unfortunately, he lost two of his matches and was eliminated, but he showed such maturity and growth that day in how he handled his loss. It was such a fun event, and I immediately put up the shots on Instagram to show off these unique pictures.
Then, I randomly remembered I put a request to follow that ilikestrongkids50 account and decided to check the profile…
Immediately when I opened this person’s account, I felt like I was punched in the stomach. It was late at night after I was done editing and posting pictures, so I didn’t want to wake up my husband. There’s nothing wrong with these pictures alone, but there is something wrong with the context. There were over 4,000 posts of kids with their shirts off. The girls had bathing suits, but 90% were boys from the ages of 6-12. Then, I noticed that my son’s picture from the tournament just a couple days before, as well as the picture I took of his team, were on there. I checked to see if there were any descriptions on these pictures and there were none. No backlinks to the original posters. My son’s pictures (and another teammate of his) were downloaded and posted on the page.
I thought, okay. Maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe it’s another kid that wants to post pictures of strong kids to motivate them or something (I don’t know). But then I started really thinking about this. Why in the heck would anyone download thousands of pictures of kids? So, I started really digging into the people that this account follows. This person was following 1,891 accounts of kids and sports photographers. All of these other accounts look like they were started by a parent to show off their child’s achievements, show them flexing their arms and muscles. Nothing pornographic, just really innocent. And these accounts were open accounts, non-private. These were the accounts from which this person was taking content from without permission, without the parents even knowing – like me.
Then, I started digging into the 461 followers. This is where I wanted to throw up. They were mostly older, adult males with fetish pages. These men are following thousands of little kids’ accounts (mostly prepubescent boys) and commenting some vile things. I immediately started taking screen captures of the followers and the followed of this account. Then, I messaged him.
‘Why did you post two pictures of my son and thousands of half-naked kids on your site?’
He replied back, ‘I don’t post porn.’
‘Why did you start this Instagram account?’
He immediately blocked me.
Let me tell you, I could not sleep. I was scared to tell anyone about this. I was sure everyone would be angry that I didn’t protect these images from an online predator. The team parents would be upset. I felt so guilty. Again, I could not sleep. I stayed quiet the first day and mulled this over. Somehow, this was my fault.
I decided to report it to Instagram. I had to get on my older son’s Instagram. Yes, my older son has an Instagram account that was ONLY on my phone and only I knew the password. We, together, would post some of his amazing artwork and no pictures of himself, and made it private. I used his account to get back onto the creep’s account. He instantly let me back in.
There’s three dots on the right of the account where you can report a picture. I started reporting them, indicating they were inappropriate, child porn, and copyright infringement (there’s not many choices). I also messaged FBI Tip Line and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Instagram wrote back to me the next day and requested I submit my son’s birth certificate or other proof that the pictures were my son. I wrote back that I was unwilling to send a copy of his birth certificate online. And even if I did send his birth certificate, what does that prove? The only way Instagram was willing to take down a stolen picture of my son off of someone’s pervy site was if I proved he was my child. So, it’s okay for someone to post the picture, but a mom would have to go through a lengthy process to get it taken down?
The next day, I decided to get freakin’ MAD! This [jerk] violated not only my family, but thousands of others! Then, it hit me… this site was merely an advertisement. Holy crap. It’s an advertisement to pedophiles out there to join together and make a network. This site was a gateway to something so much more sinister on the other side. The creep who started the page has a KIK messenger account that is completely untraceable. This is how he lures people off the page to have a ‘special chat’ or other services.
I decided to open up to my husband about what happened. I showed him the screen grabs I took, and he was angry (not at me). He said I did the right thing.
I called the Chula Vista Police Department and put in a report. I knew it was not going to go anywhere, but I wanted to say that I filed something. I did something. The police officer came to my house, got my statement. I sent him all the screen grabs and information I had. He told me that since it’s not child pornography, they simply cannot do anything. The report is still there, but this person did not technically break any laws. There were no nude pictures, no blatant wording that says there’s a web cam or other services. It obvious to the police officer, obvious to me, and obvious to everyone if they looked that this site was exactly that, a meeting place for pedophiles. But it’s not against Instagram’s ‘Community Guidelines,’ or the law.
So, then I went to Facebook and made a public post about all the information I had on this account. I posted it everywhere. My mom’s groups, wrestler’s groups, photography groups, you name it. I outlined and called out this account. From there, over 100 of my friends went to the account and blocked him or reported it as child pornography. They all received this:
Some parents found that their child’s accounts were being followed by this creep and a few others that I listed. Some even found a picture of their own child on the account! I received many instant messages from concerned parents that wanted to tell me their stories and thanking me for saying something. At least I was able to help in this way, even if it’s small.
A friend of mine reached out to me with a connection to a local CBS news channel 8 and asked if I could be interviewed. Yes! Of course. I already opened Pandora’s Box, why not do it on television? The news crew came to my house and we went through the story again. They did such a great job putting it together. Afterwards, the reporter reached out to Instagram, who then shut down the creeps’ ilikestrongkids50 account. An Instagram representative told the reporter that they will shut down the account because it goes against community guidelines. Wait, what?! About 100 of my friends reported this account and it said it didn’t. Huh. Weird.
CBS 8 did another report on hashtagging your child’s picture to keep them safe. Well, safer. Again, they did a fantastic job. What I noticed from the followers of this creep’s account is that they track certain hashtags that are seemingly innocent, something that I see many parents hashtag their kids photos. When you hashtag, this gives predators easier, faster access to the images they want.
#strongkid #kidwithabs #boymodel #musclekids #rippedkid #musclekid #bathtime #pottytraining and so so so many others.
A day later, I got a text from a stranger on my Facebook. She said she saw me on the news and decided (on her own) to message this guy on his KIK account. She told him he was a creep and should be charged with child pornography and he replied:
Then she sent it to me to let me know. Of course, I knew that he was just going to do that. I posted this response to my Facebook page and later that afternoon the news station was back to my house. I didn’t know what else I could say about it, the guy is a creep. I’ve reported it to the FBI, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Instagram, local police, all my friends, family, and social network. What more could I do? But yet again, the news station did a great story about it.
Then, I really started to get upset because I could (as an average person) quickly and easily find pages on Instagram that have links to go off to a secure web cam. I found 5 sites just 2 clicks into the people that ‘liked’ my son’s picture on the ilikestrongkids50 account! I immediately reported those sites to Instagram, just to get the same ‘does not go against community policy’ message. And also to other authorities. After that, I just pulled myself away and prayed for those kids that I know are on the other side of computer screens being abused.
I make a vow to bring this to the attention to lawmakers when it comes to children online. Why should any online account have thousands of pictures of minors without parent permission? That’s just the start.
Throughout this experience, I learned a few things:
1) Don’t have a social media account for my kids. It gets ugly and fast. I took my older son’s art one down.
2) Go through my Facebook friends regularly and don’t be afraid to throw some people off that I don’t quite know or trust.
3) Be mindful of hashtags. Or just don’t (that’s me personally).
4) Always check accounts that request a follow. Don’t be afraid to block.
5) Say something. If something seems wrong, it probably is.
Parents of my generation are the first parents to navigate the world as a parent online. The internet was fairly new when I was growing up in the 90’s. I remember having to show my mom how to get on the dial-up modem with America Online Line (AOL). Funny, it was faster to go to the library and get books with the right information for a research paper than it was to find it on the internet. My parents did not worry about online predators, maybe a creepy neighbor. My parents let me ride my bike or drive my car to friends’ houses without a phone or contact. They worried if I was past curfew. Now, with this generation of kids, and us as parents, our kids don’t even have to walk out of their rooms to face danger. I don’t want to bubble wrap my boys (okay, maybe I do a little). This tech generation and how integrated it is in all our lives is such a new world.
I want to leave here with something uplifting. For the most part, social media is 99.99% awesome. Sharing photos, videos, being able to have my own business from home is such a blessing. I’m able to enjoy raising my two boys and be very active in their very active lives. I love being married to a supportive, awesome husband while living in Southern Californian perfect weather. As a parent, we really do belong to a village. It’s just that our village got universal. I hope that my story empowers people to take control of their online life and make it a safer experience.
**This story was written by Andrea Van Wagner of San Diego, California and originally appeared on Love What Matters. Used with permission.