Written by: Felicia George from Set Free Monterey Bay, a partner organization.
I’m a mom of four and a human trafficking awareness and safety educator. My kiddos span the spectrum of tween to young adult. Raising kids now is not what I remember from childhood. We’re living in a rapidly changing society that seems to have technology at its center. Whether our kids are using a laptop, iPad, or Chromebook for school, or have the screen from their phone or gaming system glowing in their faces, much of their time is in front of a screen. I know screentime has to be a balance, just like everything in our lives. This is especially true knowing that the majority of human traffickers are finding their victims through some type of social media or gaming platform. So, what do we do to keep our kids and youth safe? It must start with good communication. Just as I’m sharing these tactics and tips with you, we need to be having these same conversations with the young people in our lives.
Human Traffickers have known for a while now about the safety and anonymity that comes with social media. You can be whoever you want. Create just the right profile and profile pic to go with it, and voila, you can be anyone.
Stage one of the grooming stage: Connect and build a relationship. Traffickers that are able to message and follow our youth now have an opportunity to create a relationship with them. Catfishing is one way they are luring in our youth. The grooming of a potential trafficking victim can be fast or slow. Traffickers are patient. They want to find the areas in someone’s life that are vulnerable. Are they being bullied at school? Do they have low self-esteem? Is their family life hard? As each vulnerability is revealed to the trafficker, they now have the power to manipulate and exploit.
Stage two of grooming: be relatable. They will come across as a peer. A peer who’s been where they’ve been. Who understands. Maybe they will be a slightly older, more experienced voice for that youth who doesn’t have healthy role models in their life. Or it may be someone older who shows a romantic interest in our child. With each message that is exchanged back and forth, the bond between our children and the trafficker gets stronger.
Stage three of grooming: they will run the spectrum. Traffickers will disguise themselves as a love interest, trusted adult, talent scout, or understanding peer to gain their trust. It doesn’t really matter to the trafficker the role they play, as long as they’ve gained the trust of their victim. Once trust is established, manipulation and exploitation begins.
In the 8 years that I’ve been educating tweens and teens about Human Trafficking Awareness and Safety, I’ve been made aware of some examples of how people were manipulated and groomed by a trafficker. One example is a young lady in my community who was tricked through her Instagram account. One night she got a follow request from what appeared to be a 15-year-old girl. Luckily her setting were on private mode. However, she and her new “friend” were still able to message each other back and forth. Through the messaging, the two discovered they had a lot in common. So much so, that our young lady accepts the follow request. This now gives her new “friend” access to all that she has shared through that account. And wouldn’t you know it, they have so much more in common. They enjoy the same musicians, food, sports, etc. Our young lady now thinks she has a new friend that she is excited to meet up with in real life. The “15-year-old” changes tactics and starts to compliment our young lady on her looks and her body. So much so that at some point during their messaging the “15-year-old” feels bold and safe enough to ask for a nude picture of our young lady. Our young lady obliges. Everything changes. Demands for more come rapid-fire. Threats of not sending more, the one that was will be shared. Fear and panic wash over our young lady. She turns the phone off and gives it to her parents. Those of us who have been doing this for long enough know that it wasn’t a 15-year-old girl on the other end. We know it was a trafficker looking to exploit the youthful vulnerability of our young lady. That picture that was sent now becomes a commodity that can be bought and sold.
So what do we do? How can we protect our kids?
As I mentioned before, it starts with good communication. This can’t be just one conversation, but rather an ongoing one as they grow and mature. I believe one of the healthiest and easiest ways to do this is to ask them to show us how their apps work. If they are collaborating with us, it’s not a conversation at them. I truly believe that our youth have to see social media as a tool. And like any tool, if you don’t know how to use it, you can get hurt. I wouldn’t hand a chainsaw to someone for the first time and tell them to chop down a tree. In the same way, we can’t give a child a phone or tablet for the first time without walking through the instruction manual. Which apps are appropriate for their age? Are the privacy settings activated? Is the GPS in ghost mode? However, having their privacy settings on isn’t enough. We must discuss messaging. Any platform that has a chatting, instant messaging, or direct messaging feature is a doorway that could allow traffickers into their lives. Our children need to understand the old saying, “stranger danger.” If someone they don’t know is trying to follow or message them, they must decline. I know it’s not that easy. There is a desire with our youth to have large followings and new friends. There’s a curiosity that sometimes they can’t ignore. We must be consistent in our messaging. It’s for their safety and protection, even when they don’t want it.