Movies often portray sex trafficking as a kidnapping situation where children are taken off the street, from a park, or even out of their homes. Those situations do happen, but as much of the world moves online, traffickers are also initiating and building relationships with victims through various social media platforms.
Sarah Gardner, vice president of external affairs for Thorn, a nonprofit organization founded by Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore that develops innovative technology to help end the sexual exploitation of children online, told POPSUGAR that traffickers are continuing to meet and groom victims in person. And while trafficking is less widespread than often cited (a recent, very detailed, study by the Department of Justice found that there are about 9,000 to 10,000 juveniles in the sex trade in the US) and many cases of child abuse are perpetrated by adults who the child knows and trusts, social media has added new layers to this problem, and provided more tools to move these trafficking activities online. "Traffickers can use social media and technology to build stronger relationships with their victims and build trust with their victims, which is ultimately what gets broken when the reality of a trafficking situation sets in," she explained to POPSUGAR.
POPSUGAR spoke to several experts in the fight against human trafficking to help you better understand the risks and how to keep your children safe online.
What does sex trafficking look like today?
Sex trafficking does not always involve kidnapping as we think of it. As defined by the Department of Justice, it refers to the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing, or soliciting of a minor for the purpose of a commercial sex act. This can happen in a variety of manipulative ways: offers of food, clothes, a place to sleep, attention, friendship, or even love that cultivate a sense of trust. Traffickers spend months grooming their intended victims by pretending to understand them, care for them, and showering them with compliments and even gifts. When the trafficker believes enough trust has developed, the situation will switch and begin to move into exploitation and trafficking.
How do traffickers manipulate their victims?
Traffickers prey on vulnerability and insecurity. Vicky Basra, president and CEO of the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center, a nonprofit organization focused on research, advocacy, training, and model programming to advance the rights of young women impacted by the juvenile justice system, told POPSUGAR traffickers rely on disconnection to manipulate their victims. They look for and perpetuate a child's withdrawal from families, friends, peers, and community.
The initial withdrawal could result from abuse, bullying, substance use, recent relocation, unstable home life, mental health struggles, or anything that drives a child to detach from their support system. "Since the young person is already experiencing a disconnect from components of their life, the trafficker's ability to build a relationship based on false promises becomes easier," said Basra.
A trafficker will present as someone who wants to help the child overcome the circumstances that led to the disconnect. When the relationship initiates online, the victim does not know who they are talking to, making it easier to believe they're interacting with someone who truly cares about them.
How are traffickers using social media and the internet?
Traffickers will look at the photos and comments a young person posts on social media to determine if they are a viable target. As Time reported, trafficking can start with something as simple as a comment on Facebook. Bethany Gilot, human-trafficking prevention director at the Florida Department of Children and Families, described to Time, "internet Romeos," people who pose as cute boys on social media that know a young person who "responds to a stranger online might have boundary issues that can be exploited."
They use the information available to them to determine how they can best manipulate the relationship. Initial contact will usually involve complimenting a victim's physical appearance. Gilot explained that these "Romeos" then groom their targets over several months to build trust and slowly strip away a victim's other relationships. The trafficker will slowly begin to ask for personal information about where a target lives and who their friends and family are. They will ask for photos or videos and eventually ask to meet in person.
What are the red flags you should look out for?
Traffickers may claim to go to the same school or be from the same neighborhood as their targets to connect and initiate a conversation with them. If they can see someone's online followers, they might use those names to pretend they have mutual friends. For these reasons, Basra said that parents should monitor if their child has many friends or followers they know only online and have never met or seen in person.
Pay attention to how often and at what hours of the day their children are messaging online. Hiding conversations or downplaying a relationship that involves constant messaging could be a sign of suspicious activity.
What can you do to keep your children safe online?
It's important that parents first understand the various online platforms their children engage with. Do your own research, or talk to your child about how they like to make use of different platforms. Once you understand the platforms, you can agree on safety measures with your children. Basra recommended parents discuss the following guidelines with their children:
- Never post personal information such as your full name, home address, or date of birth, and tell a parent if anyone ever asks for it.
- Keep your profiles private and only accept connections or friend requests from people you know.
- Please tell a parent if anyone asks you to post an inappropriate photo.
- Let a parent know if anyone you've never met in person asks you to keep a secret or to be your girlfriend or boyfriend.
Gardner pointed out the messaging to children is consistent with what to do when a stranger approaches them in a physical location. "This is a stranger on the internet, so you need to have the same kind of guard up in that interaction," she said. Children need to know to use equal safety measures regarding how much they tell the stranger and if they need to tell their parents. And remind your kids that once something is on the internet, it never goes away.
Can anything else be done?
Since technology is part of the problem, can it also be part of the solution? Gardner explained the issue in detecting suspicious trafficking behavior online is that it mostly happens in one-on-one conversations. Companies have developed technology capable of identifying when a trafficker is grooming a child, but it becomes a question of privacy and access.
"If we want to be able to catch predatory behavior and especially grooming of young children, then companies need to be able to use those grooming classifiers in direct messages," explained Gardner. "But there's also the instinct and feeling that we don't want companies detecting direct messages."
She said this is a crucial question to grapple with, and one Thorn spends a lot of time educating parents, caregivers, and policymakers about. She believes there is a way to implement technology that is used for the sole purpose of identifying adults who are systematically grooming a child for sexual abuse.
"They're not going to be able to find that unless they can use grooming technology in direct messages," said Gardner. "So the larger conversation around finding the right balance is going to be a conversation we need to continue to have over the next few years."
Resources For Parents:
- How to Talk to Your Kids About Sextortion
- Online Grooming: What It Is, How It Happens, and How to Defend Children
- National Center For Missing & Exploited Children