“I’ll be your daddy. I’ve been jerking off on you for twenty minutes. It won’t hurt, just do as I tell you”, these sentences were all in the messages sent via Facebook to a 13-year-old girl, Evelin. The fake profile was created by our author, Lilla Pósa to observe the degree of danger minors are subjected to on social media. We recommend the latest issue of 168 Óra.
May 6, 2021, 13:46
It only took a few days for pedophiles to find Evelin’s profile. A 56-year-old family man offered his services for her to gain some sexual experience despite staying a virgin; for a 35-year-old man to masturbate, it was enough that the profile simply responded to his messages. Our colleague, Lilla Pósa wrote a report in the current issue of the weekly 168 Óra about her alarming experience. We now ask her about the background of this unusual experiment. Before revealing the answers though, we unveil some exact quotes from the exchange of messages with a pedophile:
“- And is it easier looking at my photos?
– Yes! (…) I’m really hard!
– Have you done this with a lot of girls? Or am I exceptional?
– You are exceptional, because you’re a little girl.”
– Reading these quotes in your article is shocking. How did you come up with the idea of performing this one-month experiment?
– During the pandemic even those young people must have felt locked up and lonely who would normally have a lot of friends and a thriving social life. Young and old all got trapped in digital space. According to research, the number of domestic violence cases has increased; and according to international news reports, harassment over the internet has also become more frequent. As the documentary Caught in the net has also shown us the extent of abuse online, I thought I would take a look around in the Hungarian reality of the net.
– Does “Evelin” still exist or did you delete the profile strictly after one month?
– I kept Evelin’s profile alive for weeks after the experiment, because I was curious about what would happen if I didn’t answer for a long time then reappear again. I logged out, but did not delete the profile. When I returned to the site, I saw that the people I had chatted with more often kept on calling and messaging Evelin for weeks, even though she was not active any more. When I returned just a few days ago to take a look for writing the article, there were no messages from the old ones, but some new candidates showed up. I suspended Evelin’s profile on the day of the publishing of the article.
– If you repeated the experiment with another said to be 13-year-old girl’s profile, what would you expect after this?
– If I were to repeat the experiment, I’d surely pretend to be a boy. Because not only girls can fall victim to abusers, but boys too. And due to the societal conventions – as in: boys should be stronger and they are “not supposed to complain” – something like this becomes more difficult to reveal in their case. They tend to speak up later or don’t dare at all, and the problem is only discovered due to other reasons.
– What was the most important lesson learnt from the experiment?
– What the biggest lesson was is that children are not safe on the net at all. Since they were born in an era where internet and digital devices are the most natural parts of our lives, they see online space as a “game”, something not real, where whenever the computer says “game over” we can just press enter and get a new life. But when somebody becomes a victim of sexual abuse, even though at first it doesn’t seem real or dangerous, because “it only happened on the net, it’s not in this room”, it may cause deep and irreversible damages, and there is no “new life” or a “restart” button.
– How did the harassers make you, as a young woman, feel?
– The experience was hard to endure. There were days when I could not use up the three hours I had set in my rules because I was afraid I would step out of character. As I recounted in my article, the events of the first few days were nothing remarkable, and I was even starting to relax because no one “attacked me” the way I had seen in the documentary “Caught on the net”. That morning though, when I saw that Evelin’s profile was overrun by messages, I felt like I had stepped in an anthill and insects were crawling all over me, or more precisely Evelin. I felt defenseless, like a little girl who can’t call out, who can’t throw or kick off the unwanted filthy hands of herself. If I had broken my own rules about being a shy 13-year-old, I would have never seen the sad reality that a child may encounter.
– When parents read this article, the first idea that comes to their mind will probably be forbidding the child’s using Facebook.
– Parents are in an extremely difficult position because children cannot and should not be blocked from the digital world. And it was downright impossible during the pandemic, because kids could only download schoolwork from there. The key might rather be constant monitoring, educating, thinking together and mutual communication. If kids’ access is restricted, the “forbidden fruit” effect may arise, they might become even more curious and they might even try to outwit the adults. And by this they only put themselves at even more risk, because it is almost certain that these kids would only tell their parents about falling victims of sexual harassment later on or maybe not even at all, and so it would only be discovered later, accidentally. In some other way, in another place. Therefore, I would say that finding the middle ground in this question should be all parents’ main goal. If a child wanted to register on different platforms, maybe it would be worthwhile for parents to take a look at these communities and what is trending on these sites. If a parent, for example, sees a funny or shocking video and mentions it to the child, this might make a conversation about the topic much easier to start, this way the parent can figure out what the child’s interests are without interrogating them. It’s important that parents don’t deceive themselves by thinking “nah, my daughter/son is too young for that”, because unfortunately it’s not true. It would also be essential for schools to have experts involved and warn children of the “dark alleyways” of the digital world. It must be explained to children that adults do not have unlimited power over them. Therefore if there is anything uncomfortable in the other person’s approach, they have the right to refuse. And if parents feel that some of these questions are too hard to cope with or they’d rather have an expert explain something to children, they should refer to platforms and organizations where professionals help clarify the subject.
– Would you like to carry on working on this subject in the future?
– It is an extremely important subject and we may never be able to put an end to it, so in my opinion the media shouldn’t either.
In relation to the article we made an official inquiry to Facebook about what it can do in order to ensure the protection of young people. Their response however was submitted following the deadline of the printed issue of 168 Óra, so we are disclosing the reaction of the social media site hereunder:
“Facebook and Instagram require all users to be older than 13 years and we use several methods to prevent children younger than 13 years to create profiles on these sites. We have numerous ways to track and terminate the accounts of minors. Groups of our colleagues work on new methods to protect young people on the platforms of Facebook and Instagram as part a wider scope of our commitment to the online safety of young people”, said Facebook’s spokesperson.
They added also that it was required to provide the date of birth when registering on Facebook or Instagram, and that any account belonging to a person who is recognized to be under 13 would be removed. “People don’t always share the real date of their birth, therefore we provide the option for other users to report the accounts that, in their opinion, belong to people younger than 13. We have several other methods to track and remove accounts of minors; we have, for example, a team of 15 thousand content reviewers, who are entitled to request a verification of the age if there is any indication of someone under the age of 13 using the account”, they added. They also emphasized that artificial intelligence and machine learning tools are also used to “assess who the youngest members of our community are (specifically 13-18-year-olds) – and to apply for them some new, age appropriate functions that are in development.”
According to their response, young ones’ safety on Facebook is important for the sake of the safety of children. “We find all content and activity that exploit children repulsive, and these are not permitted on any one of our services. We report all the cases that clearly qualify as exploitation appearing on our sites from anywhere in the world to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). The American NMEC cooperates with the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children and other law enforcement authorities around the world.” They also added that the social media site plays a leading role in the fight against child exploitation. “We use PhotoDNA and other sophisticated technologies to recognize, remove and prevent the sharing of pictures or videos that exploit children. Apart from this we also use the combination of technology with behavior signaling to recognize and prevent grooming, that is, interactions between minors and adults that are potentially inappropriate.”
(Translated by Dóra Horváth)