Current measures put in place due to the COVID-19 coronavirus have children out of school across the nation, at home with access to the internet to guarantee their continued education. Are you convinced your children are out of harm’s way during this nationwide lockdown?
While most people immediately think of a dramatic abduction when talking about the sex trafficking of children, research shows a growing number of child predators using mobile applications.
As reported by the Human Trafficking Hotline, almost 1,000 cases of potential victims of sex trafficking were recruited through social platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, etc. between 2015 and 2018. Melissa Rangel, case manager with the Texas Center for the Missing, adds that gaming messenger apps such as Discord can also be used to lure kids.
With traffickers looking for a possible victim’s vulnerabilities, someone posting or commenting on having a bad day, feeling lonely, etc. can quickly become an invitation to like or comment, send a friend request, in the hopes of developing a relationship. Sometimes, these individuals even pose as someone that your child thinks they know.
A 2018 study by Thorn, an international anti-human trafficking organization that works to address the sexual exploitation of children, found that 55 percent of domestic minor sex trafficking survivors who became victims in 2015 or later had initially met their traffickers online, through text message or via a mobile app. This is further supported by another study done by the University of Toledo, revealing that “traffickers quickly target and connect with vulnerable children on the Internet, through social media.”
While these facts and statistics are frightening, these unprecedented times offer many of us something that we commonly don’t have: time!
So, how can we keep our children and teenagers safe?
First step: Get familiar with the applications your children or youth in your care are using and have an open conversation about internet safety with them.
Second step: Identify guidelines (which sites can be visited, how long, how/when and where can be these accessed, etc.). We truly encourage a mutual understanding that this isn’t a “punishment.”
As a teenager, I can assure you that I would have wanted my parents to show me examples of these things actually happening. So often, teens feel like “parents don’t get it,” but these measures aren’t just lessons, they are opportunities to be empowered, to become a voice or to simply be educated. A few recent articles, such as “How human traffickers are recruiting victims in a digital age” by Maria Salazar (January 2020), “What is online child exploitation” by O.U.R. Stories (May 2019) or “Sex traffickers using social media to target children” by Katie Kormann (November 2019), highlight the issue and make the subject of internet safety very real.
Reading these together can give you something to discuss and debate together. Furthermore, local nonprofit organizations, coalitions and task forces are working hard to not only address the demand but also raise awareness of human trafficking in the United States. Perhaps this is also a good time to watch a documentary film on the subject, read a book highlighting a particular youth’s story “in the life” or even sign up for an online human trafficking awareness program such as through A21’s portal.
Resources can be easily accessed through a Google search, but here are a few to get the conversation going:
• The Internet Safety 101 Information Guide found at www.internetsafety101.org/objects/FF_IS101_InformationalGuide.pdf highlights the most widely used tools such as parental controls and blocks but argues that in order for your child to be truly safe, you must become the “first line of defense.” With 1 in 7 children receiving a sexual solicitation online and an average age between 13 to 15 years old, this doesn’t solely target girls. Boys make up 25 percent of the victims of internet-initiated sex crimes.
• SafeFlorida.net offers a broad range of resources for schools, parents, teens and children as it relates to online safety. Applications to keep children safe also exist and can be part of your approach.
• Internet Safety 101 offers introductory guides on not only sexual exploitation but also online gaming, social media, cyberbullying, safety, prevention and more.
For additional information on human trafficking awareness, resources and local nonprofit organizations working to end human trafficking, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anne Caroline Valtin, Wellington