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, director of development for Thorn, a nonprofit organisation 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. Still, social media has provided more tools to move those 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.
There's no denying the popularity of social media among children today; a 2018 report by the Polaris Project revealed the increased use of social media for recruitment of trafficking victims. 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. "It's important to note that under US law, any minor under the age of 18 who is induced into commercial sex is considered by law a victim of sex trafficking, regardless of whether force, fraud, or coercion is present," Ashleigh Chapman, JD, founder and CEO of Justice U and Altus Solutions — both education-based programs dedicated to building and scaling solutions to end human trafficking — told POPSUGAR. She said understanding this definition is critical when discussing sex trafficking because of the rise of the "Loverboy" or "Romeo Pimp" form of trafficking.
"The 'Loverboy/Romeo Pimp' is a trafficker who starts off building a romantic relationship with the person and then turns it into a trafficking situation," said Chapman. 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. "Many parents think that a predator would not spend that much time with an intended target, but traffickers will take as long as they need to build that relationship before starting to manipulate and threaten their target to take the next step," said Chapman.
How do traffickers manipulate their victims?
Traffickers prey on vulnerability and insecurity. Vicky Basra, president and CEO of the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Centre, a nonprofit organisation focussed 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. "They are looking to make the person believe they can be the most trustworthy person in their life — they understand them like no one else does, they relate to what they are going through, and they are there to offer love and acceptance when no one else is," explained Chapman. 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?
Traffickers will look at the photos and comments a young person posts on social media to determine if they are a viable target. "[They] are looking for individuals who are showing signs of vulnerability, such as posting about troubles at home, showing signs of insecurity and low confidence, or looking to fit in and seeking affirmation," said Chapman.
They will 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. "They will build that person's self-esteem and then begin to build a relationship through lots of private messageing, asking questions about their day, life, troubles, and appearing to listen and affirm," said Chapman.
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. "This is happening through all forms of social media and online forums, including gaming," warned Chapman.
What are the red flags you should look out for?
Traffickers may claim to go to the same school or be from the same neighbourhood 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.
Chapman advised parents to pay attention to how often and at what hours of the day their children are messageing online. Hiding conversations or downplaying a relationship that involves constant messageing could be a sign of suspicious activity. "Youth who suddenly (or over time) begin to appear withdrawn [or] begin lying or not sharing all the information when asked about their online activities would all be red flags," she said.
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. "Parents should begin by asking their children to tell them about the social media and gaming platforms they use, how they work, and what happens when someone wants to message or talk to them," said Chapman.
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/friend requests from people you know.
- Please tell a parent if anyone asks you to post an inappropriate photo.
- Let me 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 messageing 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 all 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.
Chapman recommended role playing reporting scenarios, so children feel more comfortable speaking up when something suspicious or upsetting happens. "Let your kids know that true friends or romantic interests should never pressure or threaten you to send photos or texts that you are uncomfortable with, or that feel wrong," she said. Explain to your children that once photos and comments are shared online, they exist in the virtual world forever and can be altered or shared with anyone.
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 behaviour 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 behaviour 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:
- Online Safety Toolkit For Parents
- How to Talk to Your Kids About Sextortion
- Online Grooming: What It Is, How It Happens, and How to Defend Children
- The Polaris Project
- Love 146
- National Centre For Missing & Exploited Children