It’s Not Happening Over There, It’s Happening In Our Own Home

Written by: Julia Allman, Set Free leader in Venango County, Pennsylvania.

A few months ago, our 17-year-old, special needs son went to bed at his normal time. A strict schedule is how he flourishes, so this is how we do life. He came out of his room about 15 minutes after he went to bed and was very disturbed saying he couldn’t sleep…this was not typical. He might have had a stressful day at school I thought, and then I told him to go walk outside and get some fresh air as that helps me fall asleep.

After briefly going outside, he went back to his bedroom and came out a few minutes later in a sweat asking me to pray for him, this was definitely not typical! I asked him what was wrong and he asked me over and over to pray for him. His agitation was extremely alarming at this point and he never fervently asks for prayer.

I asked him what was going on, I told him he could tell me because I am his mom and wanted to help him. He told me that he was friended on Instagram by a girl his age who lived in Illinois and her name was Carol William. She told him that she thought that he looked cool and she liked to do the same things he did. After they chatted for a while, she said, let’s go over to SnapChat, so our son followed her over there. Once on SnapChat, she sent an inappropriate picture of herself and asked my son to send one of himself…and he did. She immediately screen-shotted the picture of him and his list of friends on Instagram and said she was sending it to all of his friends, that is the point that he came out of his bedroom asking me to pray for him.  My son’s heart was pounding so hard and he was in such mental anguish it was almost unbearable to watch, but I was so glad I was with him through it. I prayed and prayed and prayed with him and while I was praying, he was asking God to take things from him, he was pushed to the point of desperation. I prayed with him until he was calm again. I said that this girl was most likely not a girl at all (besides the fact that no one past 1970 named their daughter, Carol), this girl was not his age and was not anything “she” said she was. “She” was a predator and he was the target.

Never in history have we been in a position where a middle-aged person, from possibly thousands of miles away, could enter our child’s bedroom at the exact moment of their vulnerability.  My process through this experience has been anger that some stranger so manipulated one of my children and, of course, guilt for not doing a better job of protecting my child in our home…I am a leader in the Set Free Movement after all!! My son was in complete mental duress thinking that all of his classmates saw an inappropriate picture of him and that he had to face them the next day while he was questioning why someone would trick him so deviously and blackmail him. The fact is, this is what predators do and they are really good at it.

This is how we responded. 

First, I sent a text to our sons’ siblings asking them if they had seen anything inappropriate from him on this platform and that he had been “hacked”.  

Next, he reported the activity to the social media platforms before he shut down his accounts (we later learned another step should be made before shutting down the account). By the next morning, we heard back from the rest of our children and they had not seen anything suspicious from him, so we encouraged him to go to school. Understanding that there was a chance his peers did see something inappropriate and how that would create an unbearable situation for our son, we told him that if anyone brought the situation up at school that he should tell them that he was hacked and it was being handled by the police (because it was going to be) and for him to call us immediately if he was upset.

In the meantime, my husband and I made an appointment with our son’s counselor and after school was over, we took him to the State police so that he could file a report. The police officer was very wise, being empathetic to a situation that he said was, sadly being widely reported a lot lately. He also said that it is important to screenshot the predator before the account is closed so that they have more evidence to go on when they do eventually prosecute predators. He then followed up by giving our son a sensitive education on how dangerous that type of activity is and how, if our son had not been a minor, that activity could affect him for the rest of his life. Our son came away from that experience, affirmed and sober. 

We were able to follow up with our son’s counselor that afternoon which was really helpful. During our session, he told us that he had another young man who was in high school that went through the same experience except for the predator, did send the image out to everyone on the young mans friend list! The young man became suicidal and our son’s counselor was walking him through all of that. After the counseling session, our son left that experience with another level of relief and awareness.

Later, I sent an email to the person who handles trafficking in our region of the state who I had just met a week before when our team went to a town hall meeting on human trafficking. She filed a report at her level on our behalf.  Without telling our personal story, we share this scenario with everyone who will listen including our friends, family, pastors, and son’s educators.

As The Set Free Movement, we have discussed how the lockdown of the pandemic caused a surge in online predators. “The correlation between this social media exploitation and the use of technology during the 2020 pandemic (hereinafter referred [*535] to as “Pandemic Online Behavior” or “POB”) highlights the need for action to mitigate the number of child trafficking victims” (Boothe, 2021, p. 1).

What happened to our son was an eye-opening experience, to say the least. We try to be good parents; we try to stay informed and inform our children. We have safety settings on our son’s phone. We monitor his computer and gaming time. We have had all of the “talks”. Not every child has the luxury of a supportive home. 

We understand that this is a complex issue, including the fact we are dealing with social media apps that were created for addiction and what Tristan Harris describes as, “exposing people’s psychological vulnerabilities” (Bosker, 2016, p. 2). We need to pause and celebrate that we are part of the solution to stop child exploitation and trafficking, we are doing a good work! And now there is even more urgency in our work because, it’s not happening over there, it’s happening in our own home

 

REFERENCES:

Boothe, Nicola, A., (Spring, 2021). Symposium: The evolution of technology & gender-related offenses: Traffickers’ “F”ing Behavior during a pandemic: Why pandemic online behavior has heightened the urgency to prevent traffickers from finding, friending and facilitating the exploitation of youth via social media. The Georgetown Journal of Gender and the Law, 22, 533 (Spring), https://advance-lexis-com.lopes.idm.oclc.org/api/document?collection=analytical-materials&id=urn:contentItem:63FD-M9T1-F06F-20DH-00000-00&context=1516831.

Bosker, B., (2016). The binge breaker: Tristan Harris believes silicon valley is addicting us to our phones. He’s determined to make it stop. The Atlantic, (November), https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/11/the-binge-breaker/501122/

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