Sometimes I take for granted the fact that I have had to get savvy quick on social media, and I can easily forget that not all parents have taken the plunge into that world. Although most parents I know have a Facebook account, a much smaller contingency are on Instagram or Twitter. When a parent recently asked me, “What’s the deal with hashtags?” it was a needed reminder that we have to help each other stay on top of understanding how our kids interact with the technology at their fingertips.
For many of you, info about hashtags might seem basic. If that’s the case, please forward this link to the mom or dad (or grandparent) in your life who you know needs the basics. When it comes to our kids’ purity and emotionally healthy futures, there is too much at stake to not take a minute to walk through something simple that can really help an adult protect their child or teenager online.
Hashtags. I like to think of them as “buckets” or categories. They offer a way to sort photos or posts, in the hopes that people looking for that content will find it. If I posted something about horses that I wanted other horse lovers to know (FYI – totally not a horse lover), I might add a #horses at the end of my post. What used to be known as a “number sign” now turns whatever letters come after it into a “hashtag” – a link to other posts with the same exact wording. However, if you are posting something that is NON-public, your hashtag may not do much. For example, on Facebook, if I post something just to my friends and put #horses on it, it is now only placing that post in a bucket accessible to people in my friends list. So if none of my friends are posting about #horses, that post is sitting in an otherwise empty bucket. However, I can look for other #horses posts in Facebook’s search bar at the top of the page, and it will only pull up posts that have a privacy setting of PUBLIC, (or my friends posts, if any, with #horses).
Useful, right? Sometimes. But hashtags also have a dark side, especially on Instagram and Twitter, and this is where we have to be really wise as parents. [Side Note: people often use hashtags as punch lines for clever posts. They work the same way, but since they are a little bit random, the point of them is not necessarily to drive traffic to a post, but to make people laugh. Examples of these hashtags might be #sorrynotsorry #someonehatesschool etc.]
So I’ve heard a lot of parents (and kids, for that matter) explain that underaged accounts on Twitter and Instagram are NBD (you should know… NBD= No Big Deal). Yes, you’re supposed to be 13 and up, but “What’s the harm?” they say. The account is PRIVATE, they say. That “private” word often gives parents a completely false sense of security about what kind of content their child has access to. While it’s true that Twitter accounts and Instagram accounts can be private instead of public, this privacy setting only means that your child has to approve all follower requests. When someone types in their username in an effort to find them, this screen will show up.
So, if I’m 11-year-old Liz from New York, and my Instagram account is private, you—a stranger—can not see what I have posted. You can send me a follow request, and if approved, you can see my posts. Let’s say that Liz is really smart about friend requests (sadly, most kids aren’t). Let’s say she has only a handful of followers, all approved by mom and dad as completely harmless and safe to be connected to. The question may not be what pulls up in her feed or who can see the cute cat photos she posts. The question is… what can 11-year-old Liz see among the 300 million Intstagram users? Anything she wants, from the deepest, darkest underbelly of the Internet. How? Hashtags.
Unlike Twitter’s 140-character limit for posts, Instagram is 2200 characters. That means you can have a TON of hashtags on one post. Millions of users utilize hashtags to advertise their raunchy content for free, in as many buckets as they can think of. It’s not unusual for these captions to have dozens of hashtags, some having nothing to do with the purpose of their content, even #LOL and #boy. Here’s one actual example I found:
With our Parents Who Fight Instagram account, we often use hashtags like #family #parenting #teens #onlinesafety at the end of our posts. Imagine my shock to find porn pictures and videos in all of these hashtags at some time or another. Like the mama bear I am, I figured out very quickly how to report users, as porn is supposedly against Instagram community policies (as are posts glorifying self-harm, suicide, eating disorders, etc).
You see, Instagram has a problem. Any person who has an unhealthy need for attention and showing off their privates can have MULTIPLE Instagram accounts and post whatever the heck they want. If they get reported, they just start a new account. By posting porn or other shocking content, these users rack up followers in the tens of thousands before they get busted, and somehow they all find each other again on a using new profile names. And, lest you think these users are all creepy guys in basements, consider this finding from Beejoli Shah, a reporter for Medium.com:
“Click on one of the many penises and breasts available under nudity-filled hashtags and it’s not at all uncommon to see a bio that proudly boasts that the user is 16 or 17, and looking for other kids their age to connect with.”
This was indeed the case with the Instagram account pictured above. Self-proclaimed “horny teen boy.”
Instagram is constantly trying to scrub inappropriate content, but with millions of photos being posted every minute of the day, you can imagine how arduous that task is. To their credit, Instagram has banned hashtags that would very obviously be associated with content harmful to minors (#sex, #porn, #boobs, #anal etc), along with “code” hashtags like #eggplants and #adule. But those users are pretty sharp, and buckets of misspelled versions of these categories crop up all the time, with hundreds of thousands of posts available. The raunch just keeps changing it’s address.
The level of completely traumatizing photos available in hashtag searches on Twitter should not be underestimated. I report them when I find them, and they are disgusting, trust me. You might think your kid is totally trustworthy, and would never go looking for explicit material in hashtags. What about the kids who come across it looking for pictures of dogs, cars, or otherwise? Is it fair to place that kind of temptation in a curious 11-year-old’s lap, asking him to look away and never come back? One friend put it this way: “It’s like sending your kid into a strip club to buy a soda.” We’re asking our kids to navigate territory that requires maturity, wisdom, and skill to stay safe in. Even if they are on Instagram for completely innocent reasons, are you sure they are ready for what they WILL eventually encounter? That’s a question you need to answer long before they have an Instagram account.
So when you take into consideration all of the above, it really is a blessing that Twitter only allows 140-characters. But don’t you dare think it gets out of the hot seat on the hashtag problem. The most innocent of hashtags have been hijacked. When searching for the “Bible Verse of the Day” with a common hashtag of #BVD I came across – you guessed it… porn. Also, it’s a whole lot faster and easier to re-tweet something (sharing a post in your news feed takes one little click), which means anyone your kid is following might decide to re-tweet some adult content, thereby potentially exposing every follower they have to harmful content. And guess what? Porn is NOT against Twitter guidelines. You just can’t have nudity in your profile picture or cover photo (the photos used to identify your account). But you can post whatever you want as often as you want without any worry of being shut down or reported. You can even tag people you want to see it (although a tagged user may report you if it’s considered spam or abusive). That’s why Twitter is a porn-star’s biggest vehicle for advertising. It’s totally mainstream, and it’s 100% “legal.” (Don’t get me started on obscenity law… if our current law was actually enforced, porn wouldn’t be on any Internet platform available to minors.)
Bottom line: hashtags are a huge part of finding certain content quickly, whether on purpose or on accident. As a parent, it’s your responsibility to know the risks associated with the media you’ve given your kids access to.
Although this hashtag discussion has been quite elementary for some of you, I really hope it’s helpful to those parents and grandparents who are trying to demystify some of this social media stuff. It can feel harrowing, for sure. But it’s so worth it! If you have questions on any of this, please feel free to leave them in the comments or send us a message.