A Voyeur’s Paradise: Child Exploitation on Social Media

Do you know what your children are watching? The anxiety-laden question is often posed in our post-YouTube world. But perhaps becoming more and more relevant is this alarming inquiry: Do you know who is watching your children?

The ability to record video is, in our day and age, widely available to consumers. Every person with a smart device or computer may now delight in capturing their baby’s first steps; sending birthday wishes to their long-distance parents; storing away memories of vacations, graduations, weddings, and cute and lovable pets.

And they also have the capability of immortalizing the worst evils.

In the underbelly of certain social media apps lurks the seductive seeds of child pornography. We’re not talking about syndicated rings. It’s as easy as your teenage daughter turning on a livestream with her friend. It’s as normalized as the clicking of a button.


Livestreaming for Money

It’s happened on YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat. Snapchat, once “the seventh-most-downloaded app in the world” and touted for its “self-deleting messages,” is currently embroiled in a class-action lawsuit with a teenager who was sexually exploited for years on its platform. 

A recent Forbes article highlighted the increasingly popular app TikTok, which promotes itself as “THE destination for mobile videos.” One study, conducted in 2020, found that 45 percent of U.S. minors use TikTok “at least once per day.” 

Once TikTok users enable livestreams, called TikTok Live, “those watching the real-time broadcasts can buy TikTok coins they can use to purchase and send digital gifts to the hosts of the livestreams. In turn, those ‘going live’ can link their TikTok and bank accounts to redeem those virtual items for real money.”

Viewers communicate to the livestream host via comments. It is there that sexploitation requests come in droves, often in coded language like “pedicure check” or “play rock-paper-scissors,” before disappearing into cyber oblivion. And while the sexual predator runs off like a thief in the night, requests fulfilled in a careless moment then easily become “screenshots and recordings spread off mainstream platforms across the internet,” a wildfire of shame chasing that child for the rest of her life. It is also then that the “digital gifts” come in “the form of fun pictures,” like wolves in sheep’s clothing.

U.S. Homeland Security Investigations special agent Austin Berrier points out, “With the platforms where the monetization is through tokens or flowers or stupid little emojis, … it doesn’t click in a kid’s head, I think, that they’re actually being paid.” He adds, “The parents don’t really stop and think, ‘Okay, someone’s paying my kid to dance.’”

Some kids are making $200 per week from these livestreams. “A $10 investment with a child for an offender is a fantastic return because it’s a small amount of money, it gets the kid doing something that they probably normally wouldn’t do, and then that’s when the stick comes out—that’s when the actual sextortion begins,” Berrier continues. Or in the pragmatic explanation of one 17-year-old user: “$20 is $20. … That’s coffee a few times a week.”

In 2020, $1 billion was exchanged in TikTok overall. By the next year, that amount doubled.

There are, of course, restrictions put in place on the app. As with other social media businesses, TikTok “has a zero tolerance policy for child sexual abuse material.” As such, TikTok disables certain features, including livestream hosting, for accounts “under the age of 16” and prohibits its “virtual gifting features” for accounts “under the age of 18.” The problem lies, however, in “verifying that users are, in fact, old enough to be using certain apps or features.” In other words, some underage users are falsifying their age. This deception isn’t just particular to TikTok; it occurs across social media platforms in general. 

The good news is that Band-Aids are being administered. For one, “in the last quarter of 2021, TikTok removed more than 15 million accounts suspected to be younger than 13 (the age required to use its flagship platform) and nearly 86 million videos that broke its rules, according to its most recent enforcement report, out this month.” For another, the app has also “started testing a tool that lets users ‘dislike’ comments they feel are inappropriate.” But the bad news is that these fixes are just Band-Aids; they don’t cure the problem.


Heart of Flesh

So what is the cure? What do you do when this brave, new world of emojis and avatars and metaverses becomes “the digital equivalent of going down the street to a strip club filled with 15-year-olds”? How do we protect our children when evil has become emboldened by anonymity, when it’s hiding in plain sight, on “a public online forum open to viewers almost anywhere on the planet”? How do we stand a chance in a time when “men will be lovers of themselves, … disobedient to parents, … without self-control, … lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Timothy 3:2–4)?

There is only one cure for all sin, and it is found in the life-changing power of Jesus Christ, who will “give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26), who will write His law in your innermost core (Hebrews 10:16). In this world, you cannot overcome evil by yourself; in such a world, you cannot keep your child from temptation—but Jesus can.

Introduce our young people to Jesus through our Most Important Questions (MIQ) series, hosted by Pastor Doug Batchelor, aimed especially for those near the beginning of life’s perilous journey. There is no better way to combat sin than to meet Jesus for yourself. Allow Him to walk you through a righteous, victorious life. 

Kris W. Sky
Kris W. Sky is a writer and editor for Amazing Facts International and other online and print publications.
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