Shadow World: How Social Media Can Affect A Student

by Rylee Byers

Nowadays, you don’t have to be lured into a dark alley or the foreboding woods for a dangerous stranger to reach you. 

All you have to do is be on your phone, tablet or computer, scrolling on Instagram or Facebook, where the addictive apps can enable a stranger to message you, claim they’re your friend, and, most troublesome, easily send you explicit content.

“This thing that I hold in my hand actually has a lot of real-life impact. It’s not an imaginary world just because you can’t touch it,” said Jen Preston, a counselor with Epic Charter Schools.

A Tulsa-based Homeland Security agent investigates these cases regularly and has seen their impact. 

“Friends are no longer people you meet up with to play basketball face-to-face, for example. We live in a world where you can befriend someone and never see that person in real life. Additionally, it gives people the ability to become whomever they want online. It takes no time at all to transform into an entirely different person with the possibility of no one ever knowing the difference,” said Erin Staniech, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations. The agency investigates crimes against children online. 

The inherent risks in the technology that so many of us — particularly young people — regularly use have drawn attention following 41 states’ lawsuits against tech giant Meta in recent years, including Oklahoma, alleging it failed to protect minors, violated its own policies and promoted damaging content. Oklahoma is among the states that have banned the wildly popular app TikTok, and the U.S. House of Representatives passed a ban in April. 

And then there are the platforms’ potential mental health consequences. 

Strategies such as push notifications, infinite scrolling and autoplay videos are designed to boost user engagement, but they can be harmful, especially in terms of body image and disrupted sleep. 

Researchers have found that 32% of teenage girls reported feeling worse about their bodies when using Instagram. Facebook discovered that approximately 14% of boys in the U.S. said the same about the platform, according to congressional testimony.

Meta claims it doesn’t allow users younger than 13 on Facebook and Instagram, but investigators from the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office went undercover and were able to set up decoy accounts for children in apparent violation of Meta’s policies, court filings show. 

Meta said in a post that it is constantly investing in solutions to detect underage users on its platforms, specifically using AI to detect ages, and is working with industry partners and experts on privacy and safety standards. It also denied pushing inappropriate content. 

But such promises ring hollow to some in law enforcement.  

“Millions of CyberTipline reports every year, mostly submitted by a handful of companies, are evidence that what we know about the extent of child sexual exploitation online is just the tip of the iceberg.  Most tech companies around the world choose not to proactively detect and report child sexual exploitation on their networks,” Staniech said. 

Allegations of looking the other way also lie at the center of state lawsuits.

New Mexico’s filings allege that Meta “proactively served and directed the underage users a stream of egregious, sexually explicit images, and enabled dozens of adults to find, contact and press children into providing sexually explicit pictures of themselves or participate in pornographic videos.” 

Moreover, the New Mexico court filings noted, Meta allegedly recommended that children join unmoderated groups dedicated to commercial sex, allowed sharing of child pornography and allowed a fictitious mother to attempt to offer her 13-year-old daughter to sex traffickers. 

Staniech said society — irrespective of the outcome of the Meta lawsuit — needs to better protect children and teach them how to be safe online, particularly when encountering strangers and explicit material. 

“Any platform with a chat feature available and open to the public has the ability to be involved in both sextortion and grooming,” she said. “The trends of online crimes against children continue to increase as the years go on.”

Staniech compared the internet to driving a car: Observing an adult driving a car doesn’t mean the moment a child turns 16 they automatically know how to drive. They still must be taught. 

Similarly, “just because our kids watch adults use the internet, and even use the internet at school, it doesn’t mean they know how to stop at a safe enough distance to not get into an accident and what to do if an accident does occur,” she said, continuing the driving analogy.

Social media platforms provide plenty of benefits to society, but, like any technology, there are dangers. Experts say parents must exercise ultimate responsibility for their children’s online activities and understand how their kids’ social media platforms work. 

Preston suggested thinking ahead. 

“It’s valuable to decide how you want to use it before you create habits,” she said. 

The algorithms were designed to play to human tendencies and create those habits. 

“The algorithm is set up to reward you inconsistently. It’s a classic form of psychology,” she said. “If it consistently alerted you every two hours like clockwork, you’d likely grow bored of it. However, because the notifications come at varying times and occasionally present new information you haven’t seen before, they provide an unpredictable form of reward.”

In a BBC article, Aza Raskin, the original developer of the infinite scroll concept, stated:

“Behind every screen on your phone, there are generally like literally a thousand engineers that have worked on this thing to try to make it maximally addicting.”

In January, the Senate Judiciary Committee investigated Discord, Meta, Snapchat, TikTok, and X for failing to protect children from online sexual exploitation. Mark Zuckerberg stated that current research doesn’t conclusively link social media usage to declining mental health in young people, citing the National Academies. However, U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley challenged this, referencing Facebook’s investigation into Instagram’s impact on mental health and their findings on its toxicity.

After being prompted by Hawley, Zuckerberg expressed condolences to families affected by social media-related harm.

“I’m sorry for everything you have all been through. No one should go through the things that your families have suffered and this is why we invest so much and we are going to continue doing industry-wide efforts to make sure no one has to go through the things your families have had to suffer,” he said.

Preston compared the dopamine boosts to casino gambling. 

“The more that you come back for more, the more that the algorithm learns. Now you’re creating an echo chamber of people based on what you spend the most time watching. You’re creating a system of notifications,” she said.

All of this unpredictable sensory overload is leading to decreased attention spans. That, in turn, feeds the algorithm’s output. 

There’s a word for this: doomscrolling. This constant search for reassurance from anticipated dread can cause disassociation and numbness. 

Although Staniech said online enticement grew hugely during the height of COVID-19, victims remain reluctant to come forward. Homeland Security Investigations has resources to help them, but they must take that first step. 

HSI conducts internet safety sessions, known as Project iGuardian, for students from upper elementary to middle school to high school, as well as parents, teachers, and staff nationwide. Project iGuardian aims to educate and raise awareness about protecting children and teenagers from online predators. It covers the risks of online spaces, strategies for internet safety, and reporting abuse and suspicious behavior. 

The effort began as Operation Angel Watch, and came about through International Megan’s Law and the Angel Watch Center, Staniech said. HSI’s Child Exploitation Investigation’s Unit manages iGuardian with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Marshals Service. 

The Angel Watch Center plays a vital role in the global effort against transnational child sexual abuse by targeting individuals previously convicted of child sexual crimes who might pose a risk of traveling abroad to exploit minors. By utilizing flight data, along with the National Sex Offender Registry and state sex offender lists, authorities identify these offenders and notify foreign law enforcement. Since 2016, AWC has issued over 10,000 notifications to foreign countries and informed the Department of State about more than 3,500 passports requiring a convicted sex offender endorsement, Staniech explained.

Additionally, the Internet Crimes Against Children Program was established 26 years ago to address the growing use of the internet and technology by children and teens, the proliferation of child sexual abuse images online, and the increased activity of predators seeking contact with underage victims. The ICAC Task Force, involving over 5,400 federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies and prosecutors, conducts investigations, forensic examinations and criminal prosecutions. By assisting state and local agencies in developing effective responses to online child victimization, including addressing child sexual abuse images, ICAC has enhanced law enforcement’s ability to combat technology-enabled crimes against children across all levels, Staniech said. 

Perhaps the best known of these efforts is the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. It established the CyberTipline in 1998 for the public and online service providers to report suspected incidents of child sexual abuse, including online enticement, child sex tourism, trafficking and other internet crimes. The center uses insights from the CyberTipline to develop prevention and education initiatives for parents, guardians, law enforcement and child-serving professionals. Central to these efforts are the center’s outreach programs, NetSmartz and KidSmartz, which offer education and resources to combat the sexual exploitation of children.

Another program, the Blue Campaign, overseen by the Department of Homeland Security, aims to educate the public, law enforcement and industry partners on identifying signs of human trafficking and responding effectively to potential cases.

“Public awareness plays one of the most crucial pieces to cyber security efforts.  Having social awareness around internet safety is the first defense when it comes to cyber security, and there are so many ways to gain awareness,” Staniech said. 

But, Preston cautioned, “Even with the best safety measures and the wisest actions of use, you can still be deceived.” 


Here are some resources for parents looking to navigate hard conversations about online safety with their children.

O.S.P.R.E.Y which stands for Old School Parents Raising Engaged Youth, has created resources and a community for families looking to grow their children’s offline experience.

Wait Until 8th is an organization similar to O.S.P.R.E.Y where they value delaying their children’s exposure to social media. On Instagram, they share stories about the mental health side effects of social media as well as harder subjects such as child exploitation. 

Another resource is the documentary/thriller made in 2020, “The Social Dilemma,” which illustrates how social media affects everyday users socially and culturally. It emphasizes algorithm-driven behavior changes and psychological manipulation techniques. 

The only restrictions the internet has are the ones you set as a parent. Make sure your child knows what a healthy relationship is and looks like. A healthy relationship should always include open communication, consent, boundaries, and respect for privacy. A healthy relationship DOES NOT involve violence or abuse. A partner should not be overly obsessed, controlling, possessive, or imply that sex automatically comes with being in a relationship. 

If you have entered a dangerous relationship, ALWAYS trust your instincts. You don’t need to ask them for permission to do anything and you do not have an obligation to be public online. Be private with your information. Tell a trusted adult if you are being blackmailed or threatened with a personal photo, and immediately inform a trusted adult if someone is trying to lure you into an uncomfortable situation. If you get to a stage where you are meeting someone you met online in person, go to a public setting.  Gather as much information about the scenario as you can such as the people involved, vehicles, location, and time of day through videos, photos, and mental notes. Contact the establishment’s security and/or report to the local police’s non-emergency number. 

The Demand Project can help with resources for victims in crisis situations. The Demand Project (TDP) exists to eradicate human trafficking, online enticement, child sexual abuse material, and the commercial sexual exploitation of children. After calling law enforcement, contact TDP’s crisis hotline at 833-914-3116

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