Mar 14, 2023

Think Your Kid Won’t Get Porn in their DMs?

Think Your Kid Won’t Get Porn in their DMs?

Think again. I got catfished on Instagram, and I’m a 45-year-old expert on screentime.

Think again. I got catfished on Instagram, and I’m a 45-year-old expert on screentime.

child browsing the internet at night
child browsing the internet at night
child browsing the internet at night

I’m a 45-year-old adult with a fully-formed prefrontal cortex. I am well-educated, capable, and confident. I am expert in screentime and parenting challenges.

And I got catfished.

In case you aren’t clear on the definition of “catfishing,” here’s what Wikipedia says:

“Catfishing is a deceptive activity in which a person creates a fictional persona or fake identity on a social networking service, usually targeting a specific victim. The practice may be used for financial gain, to compromise a victim in some way, as a way to intentionally upset a victim, or for wish fulfillment.”

I know what catfishing is. I’ve heard all the horror stories. I’ve been warning parents for a long time that porn is “everywhere,” no social media site is truly safe for children, and that groomers and catfishers and scammers are relentless and omnipresent. I remind parents that, developmentally, children can’t distinguish between friend and foe, fantasy and reality, fact and fiction, when it comes to online interactions.

So with all this knowledge, wisdom, and experience, I’m embarrassed to admit: I fell for it.

The reason I decided to write about my experience is because this can and does happen to literally anyone, including and especially children. I want to use my voice and platform to sound the alarm so fewer of us continue to think “this won’t/doesn’t affect me or my kids. It’s not my problem.”

But it is. It’s a You problem. It’s a Me problem. It’s our kids’ problem. It’s everyone’s problem.

Nobody realizes they’re being groomed when it’s happening.

That’s the point. That’s why it’s so confusing to kids. And that’s why it is so important to talk about it.

Here’s what happened.

I use Instagram. I know: it is hypocritical. I don’t like it. I hate Facebook even more. But I also have to hang my sign somewhere. So I hired an assistant, passed on to her the task of designing my content and posting it, and occasionally, I engage. Comments, likes, shares. You know– to boost the algorithm.

Occasionally, I get direct messages (DMs) from followers I don’t know. Sometimes, I respond. I’m usually pretty wary. I know where the trolls live. I know how clickbait works. Usually these DMs are generic– “I agree!” or “Great message!” A few people want me to promote a product (no thanks).

So a few months ago, when I got this message, it worried me:

What would you do if this slid into your DMs? What would your kid do?

As a former classroom teacher, I know what it means to be a mandated reporter. I know that teen girls are everywhere on Instagram, and I know that many of them are getting sent inappropriate pictures (3 in 4 teens are exposed to pornography, either accidentally or intentionally.)

My instinct was to help this person. But I didn’t know for sure that this was real, that it was a “she” (I assumed), nor what, exactly, I should tell her.

I decided to assume best intentions. If this was a young person bidding for help, Could I refuse? Could I ignore it? I didn’t think I could. I didn’t want to be an adult who failed her.

I responded:

The former teacher in me couldn’t not respond

I thought referring her to a trusted adult was the best response, given the little information I had. It’s what I would have done as a teacher.

We want children to know that blocking and reporting scary or sketchy interactions online is absolutely the right thing to do when (not if) they see it (because they will).

(And that’s so confusing for kids too, because they’re told to be nice, and kind, and polite, and inclusive– blocking someone feels “mean” or even like bullying behavior. So confusing.)

“She” wrote back:

(Oh boy.)

This response felt…weird. So I waited a few days. Mulled over what to possibly say in return. Tried to decide if I should respond at all.

Before I made a decision, I got another message. Then another. Then another. Spread out over several hours, as if encouraging me, inviting me, to engage…waiting for me to respond:

(This is when things started to seem…odd.)

Maybe you’re laughing now. That’s fine. It’s easy to look back on this now and think, “How did I not see this for what it clearly was?”

But the reality is, like many catfishing expeditions, this one tugged at my humanness, my emotions; my empathy and concern for young people. The reference to a Church official– someone trusted, a pillar of her community. This young person needed help. Right?

This was extremely naive of me, of course. Wishful thinking on my part. I’m old school, I guess.

I should’ve seen what was coming next. But I didn’t. Because it was so subtle, tapping into my emotions.

Flattery: a compliment on my work, praise that my words provided comfort. It always feels good–to be validated, right?

(Who doesn’t like compliments? Flattery works.)

And then a quick pivot back to the original message:

(Uh oh. I don’t think I want to see screenshots.)

Again…something felt off. I know– it’s absurd looking back. Initially I felt relief– “Oh good! She told someone!” And then the “screenshot the conversation” part of the message came through and my brain went: “Uh oh…”

Quickly, I looked at her Instagram account page (probably should’ve done this sooner, I know.) Red flags: few followers, recently created account, generic bio, pics of young teens with silly butterfly filters.

Then, I clicked on her Stories: Penises. Breasts. Nudity. Porn. Porn. Porn. One pic after another. Very, very graphic. (I spared you those screenshots).

Of course it was now obvious I’d been duped. I switched back to my DMs in time to see these screenshots arrive. Supposedly, this is the conversation “she” (blue bubbles) had with her “church teacher” (black bubbles).

Brace yourself:

(I would hope a real church teacher would never engage in a conversation like this…with a child.)

I’ve blacked out the most graphic of the attached image (you’re welcome). But the laughably absurd “church” teacher’s commentary and advice aside, I have left the language uncensored for a reason.

Because it is real. It’s graphic. It’s gross. And this is one teeny (lol) example of what kids and teens see ALL THE TIME.

I’m mortified that I fell for this. That I, Emily Cherkin, The literal Screentime Consultant, with my fully-developed brain and extensive knowledge about the tech industry and social media and parenting, could be so easily catfished.

I feel shame and disgust and embarrassment. I feel like a fool.

But that’s precisely the point: if this is something I can so easily fall into, we can only assume when it happens to children (and it does; all the time), that it is even more embarrassing and shameful because they lack the years of experience and perspective-taking and therapy that have help adults (like me) to be at least a bit more capable of handling messes like this.

The stakes for me are low.

But for children, when this kind of thing happens, the stakes are much, much higher. If children are too trusting, their emotions can be manipulated. If children believe that a “nice” stranger online who pays them compliments and expresses interest in them is a friend, not a foe, then they are more willing to engage with them: to send photos of themselves posing in a bathing suit, or offer a parent’s credit card number to send money to their “friend” for their sick kitten.

Then, when the extortion becomes real and big and scary, when the stakes are suddenly so high, when the compromising pictures or credit card numbers are in the scammer’s hands, if a child doesn’t have a trusted adult to talk to, they internalize that shame. They blame themselves. They try to make it go away. And sometimes, “making it go away” leads to self-harming behaviors and suicide.

The research is very clear now. Social media is a major cause of the mental illness epidemic in teen girls especially. 57% experience persistent hopelessness or sadness, and 1 in 3 has seriously considered suicide.

My foolish naïveté may be entertaining, but this is no joke. This is deadly serious.

If you’re not ready to have conversations with your kids about this kind of content, then they aren’t ready to have devices or use the internet.

And as I learned, even adults aren’t always ready either.

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The Screentime Consultant Logo Footer image

Emily Cherkin’s mission is to empower parents to better understand and balance family screentime by building a Tech-Intentional™ movement.

Copyright © 2024 The Screentime Consultant, LLC | All Rights Reserved. | Tech-Intentional™

and The Screentime Consultant, LLC™ are registered trademarks.

The Screentime Consultant Logo Footer image

Emily Cherkin’s mission is to empower parents to better understand and balance family screentime by building a Tech-Intentional™ movement.

Copyright © 2024 The Screentime Consultant, LLC | All Rights Reserved. | Tech-Intentional™

and The Screentime Consultant, LLC™

are registered trademarks.

The Screentime Consultant Logo Footer image

Emily Cherkin’s mission is to empower parents to better understand and balance family screentime by building a Tech-Intentional™ movement.

Copyright © 2024 The Screentime Consultant, LLC | All Rights Reserved. | Tech-Intentional™

and The Screentime Consultant, LLC™ are registered trademarks.