Child sex trafficking refers to the act of coercing children into sex for profit using deception, violence, and debt bondage. Although most Americans believe human sex trafficking is only a problem in poor countries, this exploitative venture is churning profits in too many American towns, even rich suburbia. Increasingly, kids from even happy families are being lured by pimps and traffickers using texting and social media. All it takes is smartphone access. Are your kids at risk?
How likely is it that there is human sex trafficking in my town?
Two types of sex trafficking defined by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 include domestic minor sex trafficking (the exchange of sex with a child under the age of 18 for gain of cash, goods, or anything of value) and commercial sexual exploitation of children (such as pornography, prostitution, child sex tourism, and child marriage). In a 2014 report conducted by the Urban Institute, it was estimated that the underground illegal sex trade is bringing in profits as high as $290 million in Atlanta, GA (Dank, 2014). Other top-earning cities include Chicago, Las Vegas, Memphis, and New York City. By grooming kids on social media and texting, traffickers have easy access to kids from any town. Common methods used by pimps and traffickers to recruit, manage, and retain control over their victims include feigning romantic interest, emphasizing mutual dependency, discouraging women from “having sex for free,” and promises of material comforts (Dank, 2014). Once the trafficker gains the child’s trust, it is easy to set up a meeting with the child for more traumatic person-to-person exploitation.
How does a trafficker obtain a child’s cooperation without her parents knowing?
All it takes is a curious teen and a motivated trafficker to create an online relationship that can lead to exploitation. Consider thirteen-year old Savannah. Like many of us, her parents never got around to setting up filtering and monitoring software on the laptop she got for her birthday. One day she visited a website that was offering sugar daddies to pay for things and quickly fell under the influence of a sex trafficker.
“I don’t know why I did it . . . I didn’t know that I would have to have sex with them, I thought they would just buy me stuff because I was pretty,” claimed the attractive, well spoken THIRTEEN year-old girl. She had no idea what she was getting into. “Even as they were taking me to the hotel, I still wasn’t really sure what was going on,” said Savannah. She then was hooked into a life as a hostage where she was forced to have sex with men up to thirty times a night. If she wouldn’t cooperate, they would hit her, hold a gun to her head, and threaten to kill her. She lived in constant fear as a hostage because she was fearful of speaking out (Kristoff & Wudun, 2014).
Another story involves fifteen year-old, Teresa. She was like any other 15 year-old girl entering ninth grade. She lived in Detroit and her dad had a high paying government job. In order to lure her, a trafficker had a boy enrolled in her school pose as a love interest. These criminals had been watching Teresa for a while before making their move on their “perfect” target. Teresa, like other young girls with hormones racing, developed a crush on the boy who showed her attention and would tell her how beautiful she was. Then one day he offered her a ride home from school. She didn’t even think twice about the offer. Unfortunately, he never took her home.
Instead he took her to an apartment where she was drugged and gang raped. They used photographs of the assault to blackmail her and force her into sex slavery for months. They stalked and monitored her constantly, threatening that if she ever told anyone they would kill her brother and family. At night they would sneak her out and take her to different homes, where she would be placed in a room and forced to have sex with multiple men each night. “Sometimes they were high class homes, mansions, sometimes even politicians or business owners,” she stated. Ultimately, she was able to escape when her father was relocated for work. She never told her family what happened and to this day lives with the trauma of what she underwent her freshman year in Detroit, MI (ABC News, 2011).
We all know that kids of any gender and family situation could be accessible to Internet predators. However, getting rid of all screen media is no longer a reasonable option. In order to avoid your child being targeted and tricked online, follow these simple suggestions to get started on online safety.
What can you do TODAY to GetKidsInternetSafe?
Provide education about online risks
- As a clinical psychologist, much of my work starts with psychoeducation. People can only move to independent problem solving if they understand the issue from an informed perspective. From there I move into teaching and skill-building. In the case of online exploitation, I walk kids through the security risks from their screen and social media, such as having public versus private profiles, making self-disclosures online that could be analyzed for identifying information, contact with people they don’t know who may be dishonest and exploitive, and location information from geotagged photos and logos on clothing. Once kids learn the risks, they get more serious about self-protection. GetKidsInternetSafe articles like “White Supremacists or ISIS? Who’s Seducing Your Teen Online?”are awesome resources for education and immediately applicable tips.
Offer warm and nonjudgmental support
- Let your kids know that, just as everybody makes mistakes in nonvirtual life, it is expected that they also will make mistakes online. Create an ongoing cooperative dialogue about online life so your kids won’t fear shaming lectures or punishing consequences if they do ask for help. Not only will this enrich your trust and connection with your kids, but it will also optimize the chance that they will come to you if they get worried or have questions. Usually the learning goes both ways between Internet natives and Internet immigrants, which is a win-win!
Use parental controls and monitoring and filtering software
- We all want to trust our children to be honest with us and use good judgment. However, clinical and parenting experience has demonstrated that counting on a child to use good judgment is not enough to keep them safe online. Rather than allowing open access to online content and hoping for the best, a better option is to use technology to block and filter content and monitor use. Start with strict and more intrusive controls for young children and gradually allow more independence and privacy as they age and demonstrate skills and responsibility. Don’t be afraid to loosen up a little then tighten again as your child tests limits and experiments with online choices. Be honest, as sneaking and ambushing can damage that critical parent-child alliance. Cracking down once the damage is done is simply too late.
Take an hour to review social media profiles together
- Review and change security and privacy settings on each other’s social media profiles from public to private
- Use free apps to review metadata from posted photos and strip them of location information.
- Change the settings on your smartphones to prevent geotagging when you use the camera. For the iPhone, it’s as simple as going to Settings> Privacy>Location Services >Camera. Then set the toggle switch to never.
Clearly your influence is optimized if you have a fun, warm connection with your kids. I created GetKidsInternetSafe to educate parents and offer doable parenting strategies so families could get on-track with Internet safety. For more tips on how to create screen safe zones in your home, check out my GetKidsInternetSafe Quickstart Kit.
I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetYourKidsInternetSafe.
Onward to More Awesome Parenting,
Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty
ABC NEWS. “ABC NEWS- PRIMETIME.” PRIMETIME ABC NEWS. ABC. 9 Feb. 2006. Teen Girls’ Stories of Sex Trafficking in U.S. Web. 24 Feb. 2016.
Dank, Meredith, Bilal Kahn, P. Mitchell Downey, Cybel Kotonias, Debbie Mayer, Colleen Owens, Laura Pacifici, and Lilly Yu. “Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major US Cities.” Http://www.urban.org/events/shedding-light-americas-underground-commercial-sex-economy, 2014. Urban Institute, 12 Mar. 2014. Web.
Kristof, Nicholas D., and Sheryl WuDunn. A Path Appears: Enriching the Lives of Others–and Ourselves. N.p.: Random House, 2014.