I went undercover in a forum where insecure teens post selfies to get validation – and pedophiles answer
Men upwards of 30 years old asked me how far I’d gone with boys, asked for pictures and told me I had a ‘nice body’
by Katie Way
When I was a teenager, I spent a solid 40 percent of my time worrying about my physical appearance. I ended up with overplucked eyebrows and Hair Cuttery highlights as a result — but for teenagers who turn to the internet to quell their insecurities, the consequences can be much more serious.
I talked to more than a dozen teenagers who have posted on two Reddit forums, r/ratemeteen and r/TeenAmIUgly. These forums were created specifically for teenager users, who post pictures of themselves and ask for constructive criticism about their looks.
R/ratemeteen was banned on March 23 — the same day that Babe reached out to Reddit for comment on this report.
The teenagers I spoke to told me about the messages they received from adults, from the faintly creepy to the graphic and sexual. They said they accepted these messages as a natural consequence of posting on these forums.
When I started reporting on this story, both r/ratemeteen and r/TeenAmIUgly were small but active corners of Reddit. Before r/teenrateme was deleted, it had more than 3,000 subscribers and r/TeenAmIUgly has more than 2,000 subscribers.
'I may be fourteen, but I'm not stupid'
Lauren, a 14-year-old Reddit user, said she posted to r/ratemeteen because she was insecure and liked the validation. But as soon as she posted, she said she knew something was off. The messages started streaming into her inbox — crude, sexual messages, sent with the full knowledge that Lauren was 14.
"They were describing in great detail how 'sexy' I was, how I should 'show more leg,' if they’d have sex with me, or let me give them a blowjob and how I have a 'wonderful body,'" Lauren told babe over email. "I don’t deserve to be tricked into feeding these guys' sick fantasy." She deleted her post, and then her entire account.
16-year-old Riley, who lives in Mississippi, received similar messages when she posted to r/ratemeteen. They came from guys she suspected were "older predators," an assumption she based on their own post history, where they identified themselves as adults on other forums, and the fact that they sent her private messages instead of publicly commenting on her post.
Riley said she tried to laugh about the messages, and even showed some of them to her sister, but ultimately they bothered her.
"Whenever I got on Reddit and saw the little mail icon was orange, I dreaded clicking on it," she said. "[Moderators] can try to get rid of it, but it's going to happen anyway, especially to young women, who are mostly posting on these because they're insecure or anxious, like myself."
But r/ratemeteen didn't have any visible moderators — there were no Reddit users listed in the forum's sidebar, no contact points for teens experiencing harassment. The list of the group's rules was brief — only people 18 and under were allowed to post — and suggested that the teens "remember to smile!"
Reddit users are able to block individual users from messaging them or restrict their inbox to a list of trusted users only, but most people don't bother with the latter and don't try the former until after they've been pestered.
'It's a bit harder to stop creeps who are messaging users'
R/TeenAmIUgly has active moderators. The person who founded the forum is a 19-year-old college student named Justin who sent us a picture of himself to verify his identity. Justin said that when teenagers come to any of the forum's moderators to complain about creepy behavior, they report the issue to Reddit admins and trust the company to deal with it "appropriately."
Justin said he sees r/TeenAmIUgly and similar forums as a necessity because the forums give teens a place where they are, nominally, protected from a larger audience of potential creeps. "In essence, there will always be teens posting to rating subreddits," he said. R/TeenAmIUgly is theoretically a safe space for the teenagers to do so.
But in practice, the ability to report creepy messages after the fact doesn't stop them from being sent in the first place — and can a reporting process erase the impact unsolicited sexual content has on teens who receive it?
Jade, 14, said that after she posted in r/TeenAmIUgly she received comments about her "dick-sucking lips," asking her if she wanted a sugar daddy, dick pics and even a request from a man who asked her to kick him in the balls.
One 24-year-old messaged her and said that he was often approached by girls "her age" who wanted a break from "immature boys." She rebuffed him. "He said he never let laws usually get in his way for caring someone," Jade said. "That was a big red flag."
Teenage girls aren't the only ones subject to this kind of unwanted attention. Remo, a 15-year-old boy, said that he actually gave his Kik information to a Reddit user who claimed they were a teenage girl.
From there, the "girl" demanded "two fully naked mirror pictures with your face in them." At that point, Remo said he told the person he was corresponding with to "piss off" and concluded that they were probably a pedophile.
"The fact is there are actual sexual predators claiming to be people they aren't, so I think there's cause for serious concern," Remo said. "Especially considering the emotional vulnerability of some of these people."
'Would you be willing to sell your panties? I would pay a lot of money!'
After talking to more than a dozen teenagers from r/ratemeteen and r/TeenAmIUgly, it became clear that creepy messages are a regular occurrence for users on these forums. But I wanted to talk to some of the people knowingly soliciting underage people for pictures and sexual content.
So I posted four pictures of myself, said I was a 15-year-old girl, and waited. For the record, I look young for my age — like, "threaten to call the cops to prove my ID is real to the bouncer" young.
Within hours of posting, I was flooded with people who clearly did not just want to comment on my appearance publicly, which is the stated purpose of the forums. They wanted to follow me on social media and chat to me direct, asking for my Snapchat, Instagram and Kik. Others asked for more pictures, offered me money or sent me their cellphone numbers so I could send them more pictures. I experienced several instances of all of the above.
The user above who offered me money for a pair of my dirty underwear gave me his phone number so I could send him pictures after I told him my parents knew my email password. When I looked through his post history, I saw that he had identified himself elsewhere on Reddit as a 27-year-old man.
Men upwards of 30 years old asked me how far I'd gone with boys, called me sexy, told me I had a "nice body" and asked me for pictures of myself "from behind." It made my fucking skin crawl, and I'm an adult who's been online for more than a decade.
Both forums specify that age is included in the title of any posting asking for a critique or rating, which means that everybody who messaged me was aware I'm, in my own words, 15 years old.
A few of the Reddit users who messaged me also showed up in the screenshots sent to me by my teenage sources, or showed up in the screenshots sent to me by multiple teens. These users include Booblicker99 (whose account has since been suspended), MentallyChallengedd and BigDickBobby2.
Many of the users who messaged me, and actual teenagers, have post histories that consist exclusively of comments on porn forums or forums that exist to solicit casual sex, which suggests to me that for these users, r/ratemeteen and r/TeenAmIUgly and the teenagers who post there are just another item on the sexual menu.
According to a Reddit spokesperson, the type of harassment that was rampant on r/ratemeteen and still is on r/TeenAmIUgly is against Reddit's harassment policy — which, duh. Pedophiles are messaging children. That's the definition of Not Allowed.
"Reddit's site-wide policies prohibit harassment. Users who violate these policies are reported and actioned upon," the spokesperson said. "In cases where moderation against specific users within a community is not effective, we may consider banning a community, as was the case with r/Ratemeteen."
But how much longer would it have taken Reddit to ban r/ratemeteen if I, an adult with the power of a website behind me, hadn't reached out and said something?