Family Travel Blogging: Protecting Our Children and Photos on Social Media
WARNING: This post contains very sensitive information.
I’ve been sitting on this piece for a while now, knowing I have to write it but not knowing if I had the courage to do so. I just started my little blog so I’m not certain I’m ready to put something like this out there into the world. I’ve been taking my time, thinking carefully about how I can do it responsibly. In all honestly, I’ve been trying to buy myself some time to build up the courage.
But earlier this month I woke up on a Saturday morning to a literal shit show on my personal Facebook page. My blood has been boiling ever since. I watched the lives of a half dozen little girls intentionally put in danger via a series of photos posted on social media. Even worse- I watched the photographer, the parents, and hundreds of dangerously uneducated people support the exploitation of these children. Children who are far too young to know (or consent to) what was done to them or where their photos ended up. The FBI as well as the local and state police are involved now- all because of a few little pictures. I need to trust that law enforcement will try to protect these children. And I need to finally take the leap and write this piece to help protect others.
Before I begin, I want to share where my knowledge comes from. What makes me qualified to talk about this topic and why should you listen to anything I have to say?
In a nutshell, I got a doubly-whammy of an education in online predators over the last few years when two important parts of my world collided with pedophilia. The world of child acting and the world of gymnastics both have unsavory connections to pedophilia- including actual predators physically harming children in real life and massive rings of online predators stealing and modifying photos of children. I was lucky enough to learn about these things- and how to protect our sons- from the very best of the best. Anne Henry is a co-founder of BizParentz, a well-respected non-profit organization that protects children and families in the entertainment industry. The wonderful thing about Anne and BizParentz is that they will teach everything they know to anyone who wants to listen. I’ve been listening long and hard for the last four years. I’ve learned far more than I ever wanted to about predators on social media.
“But why is she writing about this on a travel blog?” you ask.
Travel blogging has become another important part of my life. As I’ve worked to get our blog off the ground, I’ve connected with fellow family travel bloggers from all over the world. I’ve met some amazing people doing some amazing things. And unfortunately, I see far too many families unknowingly putting their children at risk in the exact same ways parents of child actors, dancers and gymnasts are putting their children at risk. I don’t think anyone does it intentionally. It’s just that most people don’t understand how predators on social media operate. The fact of the matter is, anyone who is putting anything about their children anywhere on the Internet needs to have access this information.
It’s Time to Face the Truth
Here’s the cold hard truth. The Internet is full of pedophiles. No one wants to admit it. It’s difficult to comprehend. It’s easier to think about the scary man in the white van offering children candy on the corner because that is a real, tangible thing. But statistically speaking, your child is most likely never going to be offered candy from a man lurking on the street in a windowless van. The real threat is in your computer. If you have a public social media account, I can almost guarantee that some of your followers are pedophiles. And that they have stolen some of your photos.
I know this is uncomfortable, but stay with me. I’m going to help you understand how and why this happens- and how to protect your children and your photos.
General Internet Safety for Family Travel Bloggers
I’m going to start with some general safety considerations for family travel bloggers. These are general safety considerations that anyone using social media for any purpose should be aware of, even if your pages are kept private. But once we open them up, as we do with our family travel blogs, it becomes so much more important to be aware of these general safety issues.
- Accept that there are bad people out there. The biggest mistake I’ve seen parents make with social media is thinking that because an adult is monitoring an account, bad people aren’t following. Hands down, guaranteed, there are bad people following your public account. It’s important to keep this in mind when you post articles and photos and let this knowledge guide what you post.
- Consider how much identifying information you share. How much are you willing to put out there? Sharing your last name, your hometown, your children’s full names or birth dates… the more you put out there, the more someone can piece together who and where you are. I know this is a fine line for family travel bloggers. Our success is dependent on our audience getting to know us and joining us on our family adventures. We can’t hide ourselves completely. But be careful with how much you share. Don’t make it easy for someone to piece things together.
- Location, location, location. Don’t tag it until you are gone. Long gone. Loving the new museum you’re enjoying with your family? Awesome. Share it with the world. Just don’t post the photos or tag the location until it’s but a speck in the rear-view mirror.
- Never, ever share where your kids go to school. I can’t tell you how many of my friends post their first day of school photos with the name of their child’s school in them. Standing in front of the school sign, holding those cute little chalkboards filled with adorable information about your child, even school uniforms with the little logo on the sweater all give away your child’s location for nearly 40 hours of the week. No matter what other identifying information you choose to share- never, ever share your child’s school!
- No naked pictures! I wish this was common knowledge. Sadly it’s not. Every parent has snapped photos of their infant or toddler’s bare bottom or their little tot on the potty. Seriously, we’ve all done it. But keep them for yourself. Under no circumstances should you share any type of nude photos or potty training photos, no matter how adorable, on a social media account- private or public. As a parent, it’s hard to imagine anyone could look at something so innocent in a negative way, but the fact of the matter is those photos will fall into the wrong hands. Putting smiley stickers or emoji’s over the private parts won’t help (I’ll tell you why later). Keep it simple and set a family rule- no nude, potty training, or bath photos online! Ever!
Protecting Your Photos
The meat and potatoes of this post is about photos on social media. There are two kinds of images at risk and two kinds of websites they can end up on. Many parents don’t know the difference, but the difference is critical- and it is how and why so many people can get into trouble.
The first is obvious- pornography. Straight up pornography. We all know what this is. I’m not going to explain. Child pornography is illegal, thus these sites exist on the Dark Web.
The second type of image and website is less obvious but equally as dangerous. Child erotica. Images of child erotica and fetishes are legal as they don’t cross the line into true pornography. Child erotica sites are often called “girl lover” or “boy lover” sites. They are websites where pedophiles share images of children- legal images- that turn them on. Many of these websites are on the Dark Web, but many are out in the open on the regular old Internet- because the people running them and visiting them know the sites are technically legal. In fact, many like that their favorite sites are out in the open. In their minds, because it doesn’t have to be hidden, it actually normalizes their thoughts and fantasies.
The distinction between these two types of images and websites is important. No healthy parent– whether the parent of a child actor, a gymnast, or a family who writes a travel blog- is ever going to make or post child porn. So it’s easy to say “I don’t post anything that could interest pedophiles!” It’s easy to think none of this information applies to you or that your kids and photos aren’t at risk.
Yet almost everyone I know with a public social media account has posted images that have surely been scooped up for child erotica pages. These photos are much more subtle. Because you aren’t a pedophile, it’s almost impossible to imagine how seemingly innocent photos carry high “erotic potential”. I mean, really- who thinks like this?
Pedophiles do. And if we’re going to protect our children and our photos, we need to understand a little bit about how they think.
How Pedophiles Think
Pedophiles scroll through Instagram or social media looking for photos with “erotic potential”. Could the image be fantasized about from a certain angle, or even modified to make it appear that the child is engaging in some kind of sexual act? Yes- pedophiles modify your photos. Remember above when I said it’s not okay to put a smiley emoji over your baby’s bare bum in the bath? They’ll use Photoshop to remove it and replace the bare bum. They’ll also use Photoshop to lay one image over another to create the photo they want, inserting themselves or other adults into the photos they stole of your children.
So what kinds of photos have “erotic potential”? This list is by no means comprehensive and I’ve actually done this on purpose. But it’s a good place to start. These are the kinds of photos pedophiles are looking for when they scroll through social media. These kinds of photos have the most “value” in their world. As uncomfortable as it is, familiarize yourself with these types of images so you can avoid posting them of your children. If you know what they want, you can avoid handing it to them on a silver platter. The goal is to create a social media feed that pedophiles scroll right by.
Photos to Avoid Posting
- Any state of undress. This includes diapers underwear, bathing suits*, bathtubs, potty training, naked baby bums, gymnasts and dancers in leotards, etc. If a child is in any state of undress, the image can be more easily altered whether in Photoshop or in the pedophile’s mind.
- Feet. If you think of the word “fetish”, I bet the first thing that comes to mind is “foot fetish”. There’s a reason for that. Keep photos that focus on bare feet off your accounts.
- Looking up into the camera. This is a pose that pedophiles feel implies submission and domination.
- Sick or injured children. These photos can imply two things- one is that they need to be taken care of. The other is that they can be easily dominated. Either way, if your child is on the sick on the couch or in a hospital bed, it’s better not to post it.
- Children on beds. If you’re able to start thinking a bit like a pedophile, you know why these photos are favorites. The child is already in the right place, and often bed photos have the child looking up into the camera simply because the person taking the photo is taller than the bed. Double whammy.
- Popsicles, ice cream cones, and suckers. You’re getting the idea here. Your mind sees a Popsicle, an ice cream cone, or a sucker. Their mind sees something different.
*Bathing suit photos are a part of travel blogging. I know, this is a tough one. We’re visiting amazing beaches and waterfalls and these are some of our best photos. This isn’t to say you can’t ever take a photo of your child in their bathing suit. Just be extra careful with how you take the photos you will post. In our family, our boys know they are never to be photographed without with their swim shirts on. Even still, I try to take these shots from farther away and with their backs to the camera. A little creative composition can go a long way.
The Trouble with Hashtags
We use hashtags, especially on Instagram where you can use an unlimited number of them, to attract new followers. We’re looking for like-minded followers who will notice our specific hashtags and tag along for our journeys. But you might not just be attracting like-minded followers. Pedophiles use hashtags too. It’s how they can access their favorite photos quickly.
There are far too many pedo-preferred hashtags to list here. Working Mother posted an excellent article here that explains a few hashtags related to bath time, potty training and bathing suits. This Washington Post article discusses #RP hashtags, which stand for “role play” and involve pedophiles role playing fantasies with baby photos. Anything related to gymnastics or dance such as “young gymnast” or “tiny dancer” or any variation of these can attract the wrong crowd. Also anything relate to child models such as “boy model” or “tween model” are also risky.
Again, this comes down to common sense. For family travel blogs, keep your hashtags to travel and blogging related topics. Try to avoid hashtags that focus just on the kids, especially hashtags about bathing suits, bath time, potty training, ice cream, etc. Now that you know a bit about how a pedophiles mind works, just think carefully about how a hashtag might be used differently than the way you are intending to use it. When in doubt, leave it out.
How to Spot a Pedophile Account on Social Media
So you’re excited about the number of followers you have on your blog’s social media account! I get it! Building a following is a big part of blogging. But don’t be willing to sacrifice safety for numbers. Check out each and every account that follows you, especially on Instagram as that’s where you’ll share the most photos. If something doesn’t feel right, block it. While many pedophiles go to great lengths to make themselves invisible on social media, many give off clear warning signs! On Instagram, the obvious pedophile accounts look something like this.
- Generic profile photo
- Only has a couple of photos posted. Generally 0 to 12. They are usually generic.
- Following thousands. If you click on who they are following, you’ll often find a theme. All child actor accounts. All girl dancer accounts. Yes- I’ve even seen some who follow all parenting and family blogging accounts.
- Their number of followers are disproportionate. They may have very few followers in relation to the number of people they follow. Or they may have a huge number of followers when they only have 3 photos posted. Either way, the ratios are off. Something doesn’t make sense.
Let’s take a look.
Do you see what I mean? Why does this first account have 1,042 followers when he’s only posted two photos? What are they following?! Surely it’s not his perfectly curated feed! They’re following him to see who he follows. When I clicked who each of these three accounts are following, they are following ALL little girls. Look at this last second It’s following more than 4,000 IG accounts- all little girls. None of these people are using IG to share and connect. They’re all using IG to follow and stalk. Don’t give them access to your family.
This “formula” isn’t fool proof. You won’t be able to spot all of the creepy people. Some go to great lengths to cover their tracks and make their accounts seem entirely normal. The goal here is to be aware and trust your gut. If an adult is following 3,500 accounts of little boys, ask yourself why. If someone has four photos posted but has 6,825 followers- ask yourself why. If something feels off, block it. Just this week I got follows from five different “FanBoy” accounts- they appeared to all be grown men who only posted photos of one woman on their account and followed similar looking women. Weird. I also got a follow from an account that collected and posted photos of babies. Like, other people’s babies. Creepy. I want to build up my social media just like every other blogger, but it’s not going to be with these people. If you are in doubt, don’t give these people access to your life.
Protect Your Children While Traveling
This last piece of photo safety advice isn’t about the photos you post but about allowing others to take photos of your children while traveling. While I was putting together this piece, I came across a frightening post by fellow blogger Courtney who writes World In Four Days. In a terrifying video she posted about a trip to Paris with her young daughter, Courtney talks openly about how a strange woman asked to take a photo with her child. When they went outside, Courtney realized the woman was connected to a man standing outside waiting for them. Courtney trusted her gut and kept her child safe. When she contacted police, she learned the terrifying truth. Human traffickers wanted to take a photo with her child so they had “evidence” of knowing the child. Please take a few minutes to watch the entire story here on World In Four Days: Safety Tips for Visiting Paris with Kids.
The take home message here is no matter how innocent someone may seem, do not let a stranger take a picture with your child.
Be Educated. Be Aware. Trust Your Gut.
Listen. I know this is tough stuff. If you’ve made it this far- thanks for sticking it out. I realize that asking you to “think like a pedophile” is insane. We as parents shouldn’t have to do this. But the truth is- we need to. Educating ourselves and being aware of what’s out there can go a long way in helping us protect our kids and our families.
Family travel blogging is supposed to be fun. We’re doing amazing things with our kids and families and we want to share it all to encourage others to take their kids on adventures too! It’s almost impossible to imagine that this dark stuff exists, much less believe it could happen to us. But it does exist. And it can happen to anyone. But the more you know, the better you can protect your kids. So think twice about the photos you share. Choose your hashtags carefully. Closely monitor your followers. Don’t let strangers take photos of your children. And most importantly, trust your gut.
Let’s work together to keep our family travel blogging community as safe as humanly possible!!