A Parent's Guide to Telegram
Telegram is an adult texting app with extreme privacy features, such as secret chats with self-destructing messages and end-to-end encryption. These features make it difficult for parents and law enforcement to investigate perpetrators who target children. The Social Media Victims Law Center stands up to companies like Telegram on behalf of parents and teens who suffer harm.
Telegram is a messaging platform similar to WhatsApp and Signal with group messaging and privacy features. According to its proprietary data, Telegram has 700 million monthly active users and was one of the five most downloaded apps in 2022. Although the privacy features are a significant part of its appeal, these features make it dangerous for teens.
One of the most important measures parents can take to protect their teens on any social media platform, including Telegram, is to become familiar with the platform and follow their children. The interface of Telegram is similar to a texting app, except with extra features.
Secret chats may be one of the most appealing Telegram features for sexual predators who hope to escape detection from parents and law enforcement. A secret chat is a conversation between two Telegram users designed to be undiscoverable by anyone other than the users involved in the conversation.
The following features make secret chats undetectable:
- End-to-end encryption – A secure form of communication that cannot be accessed by a third party, not even Telegram
- Self-destructing messages, pictures, and files – A timer that tells the system to destroy messages in as little as one second and leaves no trace of it on the server
- Non-forwardable messages – Messages in secret chats that cannot be forwarded and trigger a notification when a screenshot is taken when possible
- Single-device messages – Messages not stored in the cloud, accessed only on the devices used during the messaging session
A Telegram group is a community of users that communicate generally about a single subject of common interest. A group can have as many as 200,000 members, and the group creator can assign group administrators. End-to-end encryption is not available in groups. Groups can be public or private.
A channel is a tool for broadcasting messages to a large audience. There is no limit on the number of users that can join the channel and respond to posts. Users can comment on posts but cannot initiate posts. A post on a Telegram channel is known as a broadcast.
Bots are computer programs that mimic users and offer features such as games, seamless file-sharing capabilities, and temporary disposable email setup. Adding a bot to a chat makes the chat less secure. Users can create bots, but it requires computer programming skills.
How Telegram Works
Telegram is simple to use. To establish a new account, you provide your telephone number. You should set a username only if you want it to be publicly searchable.
Teens using Telegram should not select a username. A username can be deleted by resetting it as blank.
Telegram automatically adds people in your telephone contacts to your Telegram contacts. You can also invite friends to Telegram.
You can set your account to private. Telegram accounts are public by default. People can find you or your teen on Telegram through the following means:
- Groups – Users can find others who are in the same group.
- Global search – People can find users with a public username.
- People Nearby – This feature allows users to discover other users who are close by.
Telegram allows users to set up multiple accounts and sign into as many as three accounts on a single device.
How is Telegram dangerous?
The Telegram app is rated as Mature in Google Play for Android and 17+ in the iPhone App Store. In the European Union, the terms of service require users to be 16 years or older. However, there is no age verification process.
The combination of self-destructive messaging and end-to-end encryption creates a barrier for parents who wish to monitor their children’s use and inhibits law enforcement from investigating illegal activities. Video and voice calls are also end-to-end encrypted.
Telegram receives and responds to complaints about illegal content in publicly available areas on the platform, but it does not accept or investigate complaints about activities in private chats. This gives sexual predators and cyberbullies on Telegram free reign to message, groom, and exploit young users.
When your teen joins groups, whether they are public or private, any other group member can find and contact your teen. If your teen turns on the People Nearby setting, any Telegram user in your local area could discover your teen on Telegram and initiate a conversation.
These features of Telegram make the platform inappropriate for children and teens.
The Albuquerque Police Department and the Coeur d’Alene Police Department in Idaho have noticed a shift to Telegram for drug transactions. The DEA has observed that drug sale conversations often begin on other social media channels, such as Instagram or Snapchat, then move to secure apps like Telegram.
Drug pushers can talk in code on Instagram or Snapchat to avoid detection by law enforcement, but when they move the conversation to Telegram, they can arrange the drug sale without fear of detection thanks to Telegram’s Secret Chat feature.
Tragically, social media drug sales often result in teens receiving fake versions of the drugs they purchased. The phony versions are often laced with deadly doses of fentanyl, resulting in a significant number of deaths from drug overdose.
A March 2022 study out of Deakin University revealed that the market for child pornography is strong on Telegram. Young children and teens may be exposed to this material. The privacy features on Telegram make children vulnerable to sexual abuse and violence by aiding and abetting the following:
South Korean Nth Room Case
A man in South Korea was arrested for his role in victimizing at least 74 people on Telegram, including 16 underage girls. An additional 126 suspects have been apprehended in connection with the case, and 19 have been formally detained. An estimated 260,000 people have participated in the chats connected to these crimes.
St. Louis Child Pornography Case
A St. Louis County man on house arrest for a previous sex-based offense was found with at least 882 images and 624 videos depicting child sexual abuse, which he accessed through Telegram and the dark web.
Fake Telegram Accounts
Setting up multiple accounts on Telegram is easy. A fake account user could pose as a trusted individual, love interest, or someone your child knows to get such information as the following:
- Full name, address, and school information
- Images, especially explicit images
- Links to other social media accounts
This information could be used to extort teens for sexual favors or money or to publicize a teen’s personal information — a cyberbullying tactic known as doxxing.
Inappropriate and Offensive Content
Disturbing content including extremism, hate speech, sexually explicit material, foul language, and content related to drugs and alcohol may be accessible to your teen while using Telegram. Since the 2020 election, far-right extremists have flocked to Telegram to spread propaganda freely.
Teens often overshare online and may lack the maturity and life experience to recognize the boundaries between appropriate and inappropriate sharing. They also have a high need for social connections.
Teens often do not recognize danger, and they may view their parents as hindering them from having fun. With an app such as Telegram, teens can engage in risky behavior — such as purchasing drugs and engaging in compromising conversations with strangers — without being detected by their parents until it is too late.
The feature to find others who are nearby may tempt your teen to disclose personal information or plan meetings with strangers without your knowledge or permission.
Safety and Parental Settings
Parents have limited options for monitoring Telegram. We do not recommend allowing your child to use this app, but if they do, check your child’s privacy settings and require them to do the following:
- Turn off the Near Me feature.
- Turn off the Last Seen feature.
- Use the account without a public username.
- Block people they do not know who contact them.
- Set channels to private (they are public by default).
- Restrict those your child can invite on Telegram to trusted friends and family.
- Make them give you their password. If your child sets an additional password, do it together and write it down.
What to Do if Your Child Has Been Directly or Indirectly Harmed by Telegram
If your child has been harmed on Telegram, get them the necessary support and treatment. If your child has been sexually exploited, they may need counseling. Law enforcement should also be involved. If your child has become addicted to social media or drugs, they may need treatment.
The Social Media Victims Law Center is a pioneer in social media accountability. If you believe your child has been harmed directly or indirectly by Telegram or any other social media app, contact us today for a free and confidential consultation.
Matthew P. Bergman