08 August 2017

We examine how apps provide a portal for paedos, cyberbullies and drug dealers targeting vulnerable kids

AFTER pestering her parents for months about a smart phone, 13-year-old Chloe was thrilled to finally be joining her friends on Instagram.

At last she could share snaps of herself with digital bunny ears and get all the latest gossip from her idol Taylor Swift.

Worrying figures reveal nearly a quarter of British eight to 11-year-olds now have a social media profile
Getty – Contributor

Her dad had clicked all the strict privacy settings on her account, so that just Chloe’s friends could see her pictures. The only image visible to strangers was a profile shot of her clearly school-age face.

It wasn’t enough. Five days later a sexual predator, who had not been accepted as one of her followers, sent her a vile message.

He pleaded to have sex with Chloe (not her real name) and forwarded his Snapchat details.

Her dad told us: “I thought I’d done everything to keep her safe but this monster sent her a message via a friend request, which anyone on the site can do.

“It was horrific and disgusting. Why does Instagram make it so hard for kids to be safe?”

Shockingly, this is not an isolated case.

More than a third of 12 to 15-year-olds have an account on Instagram and Snapchat
Getty – Contributor

Yesterday, Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield attacked social media giants for getting children hooked on their products.

And experts agree that Snapchat and Instagram — which are both dominated by pictures rather than words — are fuelling that dangerous addiction.

Recent Ofcom figures show nearly a quarter of British eight to 11-year-olds have a social media profile, four in ten use Instagram and one in three Snapchat.

More than a third of 12 to 15-year-olds have an account on Instagram and Snapchat. Twitter is down seven per cent in the past year while Facebook is seen as a platform for mums and dads.

All these sites are meant to have a minimum age restriction of 13, yet they do nothing to check the age or identity of users.

Social media sites and apps supposedly have a minimum age restriction, but these are rarely enforced

Tink Palmer
Tink Palmer, Online child safety campaigner, branded the internet ‘the most dangerous playground for children, ever’

Online child safety campaigner Tink Palmer last night called for action to protect youngsters.

The chief executive of The Marie Collins Foundation, which helps victims of child sex abuse online, told The Sun: “I got my first internet case in 1999 and two years later I was telling people this is going to be the most dangerous playground for children, ever.

“I said back then that safeguards needed to be in place before these products were put on the market.

“Now the stable door is open, the horse has bolted and they are trying to catch up. It’s taking too long.

“The social media industry can’t fool us that they cannot produce the safety features which are so clearly needed.”

Countless children have found private accounts won’t stop paedophiles from getting in

Chloe is not alone in finding out that private accounts won’t stop paedophiles from getting in.

One 13-year-old girl from Barnsley, whose identity we are keeping hidden, refused an older man’s request to follow her on Instagram yet he still managed to access and “like” the photos on her account.

When she asked how he had done it, he sent death threats because she refused to marry him.

She said: “He started sending threats saying things like, ‘If you don’t break up with him I will come over to England, find you, kill you and your boyfriend’.

“I reported him on Instagram, but as far as I can tell they did nothing. He is still on there and has managed to have conversations with my friends who are as young as 11.”

Instagram was last month revealed as having the highest percentage of bullies among social media sites in the UK
Getty Images – Getty

Both photo-sharing sites also stand accused of failing to deal with bullying.

Traditionally, Twitter is seen as the home of hate-spreading trolls, but last month we told how Instagram had the highest percentage of bullies among social media sites in the UK.

One schoolgirl, who was told to kill herself on Instagram, said the company refused to take action because the abusers’ messages weren’t “against their policies”.

In some cases, Snapchat only has simply suspended the accounts of cyber bullies for a few weeks, rather than deleting them

The girl, from Nuneaton, who was 14 when she was bullied, said: “People would private message me saying, ‘Go kill yourself’, and, ‘Why didn’t you cut your wrist deep enough so you bled to death?’ Others would post comments next to my photos saying, ‘You’re disgusting, how do you think we feel having to see that picture.’

“I reported them but they refused to delete the accounts.”

Meanwhile, Snapchat only suspended the accounts of her bullies for a few weeks.

In June, the American firm issued a software update including a new feature called Snap Maps, which reveals the exact location of users — putting younger users at even more risk.

Nadia and Maddie
Loose Women regular Nadia Sawalha’s 14-year-old daughter Maddie revealed that Snapchat allowed her to see what friends were doing

Loose Women regular Nadia Sawalha posted a video slamming the “dangerous” app. It has been seen 28million times.

Her daughter Maddie, 14, said: “Snapchat automatically updated me and I wasn’t aware that it was on.

“I could see that my friend Leah was listening to music, someone else was sleeping.”

Snapchat argue that only friends can see you on the map and that children have to opt into it.

But Nadia said: “I found it terrifying. After all, these days young people have a very loose idea of what a ‘friend’ actually is.

“What’s to stop a paedophile finding a child’s location once they’ve been tricked into accepting him into their Snapchat group as a ‘friend’?”

Nadia slammed the app as ‘terrifying’ in a video which has since been seen 28 million times
Rex Features

There is also nothing to stop paedophiles impersonating a friend because when you sign up for an account you do not have to prove your identity.

Serious cases of abuse have been connected to the app.

Last month mum-of-four Emma Burton, 35, from Bradford, was jailed for two-and-a-half years after grooming a boy of 13 who she had bombarded with messages over Snapchat.

And history teacher Emily Tatra, 27, from Norwich, got a four month suspended sentence after sending 30 indecent images and 15 indecent videos of herself to a 16-year-old student on the digital platform.

Emma Burton
mMum-of-four Emma Burton, 35, was jailed for two-and-a-half years after grooming a boy of 13 via Snapchat
PA:Press Association

Equally worrying is the revelation that Snapchat, Instagram and new social media app Yellow have become the drug dealers’ friends.

Pushers have an army of kids offering hard drugs to other children on these online playgrounds.

BBC investigator Stacey Dooley met two schoolchildren who were openly dealing on Snapchat.

She said: “I fear it is going to take something very tragic to happen to these kids before Yellow, Instagram and Snapchat wake up and take action.

“Until then it will continue to be a drug dealers’ paradise.”

BBC investigator Stacey Dooley met two schoolchildren who were openly dealing drugs through Snapchat
Not known clear with picture desk
A gang in Glasgow claimed three quarters of their £26,000 sales were made via social media

A drugs gang in Glasgow boasted they had made £26,000 in two days — three quarters of the sales being made via social media.

At the moment social media is unregulated. Instagram and Snapchat do not have any legal responsibility to tackle illegal activity on their platforms.

Sonia Livingstone, a Professor of Social Psychology who has written several books about internet safety, believes the sites are only paying lip service to keeping their business secure for kids.

Parents may be unaware Instagram and Snapchat do not have any legal responsibility to tackle illegal activity

She said: “When you sign up to Facebook it is clear you have to be 13, but on Instagram there is nothing. I’m sceptical that it is beyond them to construct an algorithm to seek out underage accounts.

“If they get these kids young there is money in it for them.

“They need a critical mass in order to be a success, it only works if all your friends are on it.”

A Snapchat spokesman said last night: “Every single one of our policies prohibit the use of Snapchat for illegal activity.

“We have dedicated teams that work around the clock to enforce those policies and respond to requests from law enforcement.”

Campaigners have urged the sites to tackle underage accounts
Corbis Cusp

Instagram said it had “zero tolerance when it comes to content or behaviour that puts the privacy and safety of young people at risk” and said it would investigate the cases highlighted by The Sun.

It’s spokesman added: “Anyone can report an image, account or message they feel is breaking our community guidelines.

“A trained team of global reviewers check these reports 24 hours a day and take action to remove content or shut down accounts which contravene our guidelines.”

Some of the most popular apps in our schools…


PA:Press Association

Owned by Facebook, the photo-sharing site has 700million monthly users worldwide and is popular with exhibitionist celebrities.


Getty Images – Getty

The photo-sharing site includes fun features such as digital bunny ears. Some of the story links may be unsuitable for younger users.


This free messaging app says that it is only for those over 16, but younger teens can be found using the service.



Aka the “Tinder for teens” users can swipe to accept or reject strangers’ profiles. If two people swipe right on each other, they can talk via Snapchat or Instagram.


The “confessional” app is supposed to give teens the chance to air their feelings anonymously. Those secrets can be of a sexual nature.


The group and direct messaging app includes embedded images that can contain adult themes such as drinking and sex.


The live, video-sharing network is a mixture of kids lip-syncing and original songs. Expect some swearing because this is not moderated.


It is not marketed as a dating app – selling itself as a way to meet people nearby who share your interests – but lots of teens use this for meeting strangers.

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