This blog was developed based on resources from Arizona State University, the Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research.
With schools across Canada currently closed to decrease the spread of COVID-19, most kids and teens are now completing their semesters online thanks to resources from their teachers and other educational professionals. This means your kids are spending more time online, and the risk is higher that they may come in contact with a predator or sex trafficker.
Who are sex traffickers and exploiters?
Sex traffickers are people who sexually exploit victims for profit. Children and youth can be recruited anytime and anywhere, including online. Exploiters invest a lot of time and energy into finding and grooming the perfect victim. They are mass consumers of social media and engage with potential victims on popular social media and gaming platforms. With the ever-changing digital environment and the risk of hidden apps, it’s almost impossible to understand the complexity of the various touch-points the exploiters use to reach out and attract their victims.
How does exploitation happen?
Children and youth can be commercially exploited in all aspects of the sex industry, including pornography, the street and online sex trade, strip clubs, and venues such as hotels, condos, private residences, parties and various social events. Despite the stereotype portrayed in the media, sex traffickers can be hard to identify since they can look like an ordinary person, or even be related to the victim.
In an online scenario, a sex trafficker or exploiter may start by messaging the victim in the form of a compliment, or pretend to be a talent scout or model agent in order to gain the victim’s trust. Common red flags of online exploiters are:
· Telling the child to keep the relationship secret;
· Asking for a lot of personal information;
· Promising favors and gifts;
· Contacting the child through multiple platforms and services;
· Initiating intimate discussions about the child’s appearance;
· Insisting on meeting face to face
“The criminals strike up a conversation and gradually build trust. Often they pose as children, confiding in their victims with false stories of hardship or self-loathing. Their goal, typically, is to dupe children into sharing sexually explicit photos and videos of themselves — which they use as blackmail for more imagery, much of it increasingly graphic and violent.”
What can parents do?
For parents, the best defense against online sex traffickers is to be aware of your child’s online activities. You should know what platforms they are using, if they do any online gaming and how they are spending their time online.
It is often good practice for you to have an account on any service your child uses, so you can see what they are sharing and posting, and identify possible risks. Make sure they know that when they’re creating usernames for these services, they should avoid using their full name and should never share personal information such as their address.
Parents should provide their child with a solid understanding that on the internet, any content they post will last forever – there is no way to permanently delete posts, pictures or videos once they are posted – so they need to be careful about what they share, and who they share it with.
Have an upfront conversation
Have an upfront conservation with your child about any relationships they start to build online. Also – and we know this can be a difficult topic – they need to know the risks of sending nude or sexually explicit pictures and videos through online platforms. These images can be saved without their knowledge and used for blackmail or shared with those whom it was not originally intended for. You can brainstorm with your child the kinds of situations where they might feel unsafe, and the strategies they can use to stay safe.
Make sure you know who your child is talking to online, since exploiters will frequent social media to engage and message potential victims. Teach them to be wary of people they don’t know, and to recognize signs of fake social media accounts. For example, you can visit the stranger’s profile to see how long it has been active, who their friends are and their regular account activity to verify if this is someone your teen should be interacting with.
Build trust together
Talk with your child regularly about their peers and anyone else they engage with on and offline. Help them address common struggles such as bullying, peer pressure, and social pressures of drinking and drug use. If you are open and understanding with your child, they are more likely to come to you when they have a problem and need support.
Parents should make sure their child is comfortable saying no in any situation. Ensure your child knows how to report and block users online who make them feel unsafe, or if they receive unwanted or uncomfortable contact.
Make sure your child knows they can ask for help at any time without fear of consequences.
It’s important for parents to create a space in their relationship with their children where it’s okay to discuss their emerging interest in sex, without embarrassment or shame.
Be aware of the warning signs
Be mindful of warning signs that your teen may be in an exploitive situation, such as a dramatic personality change, evasive behaviour, and disengagement from school, hobbies, and their community. While it is normal for teens to experience a wide range of emotions as they go through puberty, sudden drastic changes in their behaviour may mean something else is going on in their lives.
If these symptoms are causing disruptions in their home or school, ensure they get the necessary help from a counsellor or other professional. Ignoring these signals for help may drive your child further away, leading them to possibly take comfort with a stranger.
Spend time together
Finally, one of the most important ways a parent can protect their child is to spend time with them. While this may seem like common sense, adolescents who are left unsupervised by their parents or caregiver are the most at risk for being exploited. Taking time to do something together will give your child an opportunity to talk openly with you, and in turn you can reinforce that they can always turn to you when they have a problem.
Having open and honest communication with your child about the importance of these safety measures will give them the tools and knowledge to identify and avoid potential online exploitation.