Robyn Cory’s daughter Kristen was 15 when she was allowed to open her own Instagram account. “We thought we’d been responsible and done everything we could to make it safe,” says Cory. Months later, Kristen disappeared from the family home after being groomed on Instagram’s direct message service by a criminal gang, who then sold her for sex on the streets of Houston.

Her daughter never recovered from her ordeal, Cory says. Kristen returned home but has since gone missing after being trafficked again. Her mother does not know if she is still alive.

Cory blames the gang who trafficked her daughter for destroying her life. She also blames Instagram, which she believes played a critical role in her daughter’s sex trafficking.

“If Instagram didn’t exist, this wouldn’t have happened to my daughter,” she says. “Instagram is why it was so easy [for these people] to do this.”

This week, Mark Zuckerberg, who has amassed a fortune estimated at $139bn (£109bn) as the founder of Meta – which owns Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp – was told he had “blood on his hands” at a combative US Senate judiciary committee hearing, entitled Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis.

A solemn-looking young man in a suit sitting down while behind him protesters in the audience hold pictures of young people above their heads
Meta’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, after addressing the audience at this week’s US Senate committee hearing on online child sexual exploitation. Photograph: Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

During the hearing, Zuckerberg, who faced questioning along with other social-media executives on the extent of child harm on their platforms, denied there was evidence of a “causal link” between social media and worsening mental health in young people.

He later turned to face parents who had gathered for the congressional hearing, some of whose children had died after sexual exploitation and harassment, and apologised for what they had gone through.

Cory has no time for Zuckerberg’s apology. “He could stop all the harm happening on his platforms if he chose to,” she says. “Words are not sufficient – he needs to act.”

She says that her daughter was a “normal, happy kid” before she was targeted by a criminal gang running prostitution rings in Houston city centre in 2019.

Boys working as scouts for the gang at Kristen’s school identified her as a potential target and she was then bombarded by messages from gang members through the direct message function on her Instagram account.

“They promised her Louis Vuitton bags, they promised her yacht trips, and things like that in the Instagram messages,” says Cory. “They would say, ‘come and party with us’.”

A few months after she started receiving the messages, the gang lured Kristen away from the family home. Two weeks later police found her in Houston’s red-light district.

“[When she came home] she started to talk more about what they had done to her,” says Cory. “Horror stories were coming out of my baby’s mouth of what she was forced to do.”

Cory says Kristen came back to her family a different person from the child they had known: traumatised, frightened and angry.

A middle-aged white woman sitting on a sofa looks at the camera
‘I have searched for my daughter in some really dark places,’ says Robyn Cory. ‘We are doing DNA tests of bodies that match her description.’ Photograph: Tola Olawale/The Guardian

In 2020, aided by information Kristen gave to the police, one of her traffickers, Aryion Jackson, was handed a 27-year prison sentence for trafficking children into sexual exploitation. Since then another three people, including Jackson’s mother, have also been sentenced.

Court documents from his trial detail what Jackson put his victims through. According to the papers, he and his associates kept up to 12 women and girls in a building in Houston known as a “trap house”, where they were forced into commercial sex work for between $100 and $300 a time.

“[Jackson] threatened to kill/harm the women/minors or their families if they left him,” states one document. “[Jackson] did not provide food for the women/minors but regularly provided them with drugs to keep them working.”

During his trial, prosecutors also described how Jackson and his co-conspirators had used Instagram to groom and recruit children. Cory says Kristen told police and prosecutors that her traffickers had also used Instagram and escort websites to advertise and sell her for sex.

“She said they had people in the house controlling their social media and setting up dates for them,” claims Cory.

Five months after Kristen was trafficked, she disappeared for a second time. Her family have not seen her since then.

“Kristen told us, ‘They’re coming to kill you all if I don’t go – I have to go back. They have pictures of you all.’ She would have night terrors about this,” says Cory.

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Three years later, Cory says that it is like she has vanished from the face of the earth. Although the police and FBI are still looking for Kristen, no trace of her has been found.

“I have searched for my daughter in some really dark places,” says Cory. “We are doing DNA tests of bodies [of young women] that match her description. At this point, it feels like nobody can help me.”

“My message for other parents is: don’t let your kids have social media. Instagram needs to take measures to stop kids signing up for accounts and to stop them receiving messages from people they don’t know. They need to be protected.”

Meta and other social-media companies have been facing a mounting backlash over the extent of online harm and child sexual exploitation on their platforms.

In April 2023, a Guardian investigation revealed how child traffickers were using Meta platforms, including Instagram, to buy and sell children into sexual exploitation.

The New Mexico attorney general, Raúl Torrez, has since launched legal action against Meta, accusing it of allowing its platforms to become marketplaces for child predators.

According to internal documents made public in January as part of Torrez’s case, Meta estimated that about 100,000 children using Facebook and Instagram were sexually harassed online each day, including receiving “pictures of adult genitalia”.

In an interview with the Guardian this week, Torrez says he believes Meta is the “largest marketplace for predators and paedophiles globally”.

He believes that what his own investigation has already uncovered is “just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how widespread and well known this problem was inside the company”.

A Meta spokesperson called child exploitation a horrific crime and said: “We work aggressively to fight it on and off our platforms and respond to valid law-enforcement requests, which helps with arrests and prosecutions.

“We removed over 18m pieces of child exploitation and trafficking content between July and September last year and continue to lead the industry in reporting to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.”

“We restrict adults over 19 from messaging minors who don’t follow them, and last week announced stricter message defaults for teens under 16 (under 18 in certain countries), meaning they won’t receive messages from anyone they don’t follow or aren’t already connected to.”

A digital billboard by a US fast-food outlet
A billboard in Houston appealing for information about Kristen. Five months after the girl was found on the streets and returned home, she disappeared for a second time. She has not been seen since then. Photograph: Handout

Yet for Cory, this is all coming too late. She now spends her life crisscrossing the United States searching for Kristen, working with private detectives and spending hour after hour searching the internet for clues to what has happened to her.

“I will never give up looking for my baby,” she says. “Her brother asks for her every day. My little boy thinks somebody bad off the internet has taken her. We’re just trying to stick together and get by. But we miss her.”