When we first began our work in trafficking prevention back in 2008-2009, the prevailing understanding about how trafficking happens in the region was one of poverty, and children being asked to support their families, putting their younger siblings through school or helping to pay for elders’ medication, and turning to the sex industry because it was so lucrative–people would say that more money could be made there than many jobs offer even with a degree. It was justified by saying we already sell our hands or our backs in labor…this is just another part of the body.
This form of trafficking still happens, and is still an important part of why people become exploited. But in the last 5-8 years, alongside the rise in access to cell phones and internet, there’s been growing awareness of online child sexual exploitation. And this time it’s not just poverty that puts children at risk. It’s loneliness too. Exploiters offer children a friendship or a romantic relationship. They build a relationship of trust and slowly break down the natural barriers, encouraging them past their comfort zones until eventually they share explicit images of themselves, sometimes for the promise of love, sometimes for the promise of money. The initial images they share can then become blackmail to get them to share more images. This happens globally, not just where we work.
In the past, trafficking awareness campaigns used to highlight “how to spot the signs of trafficking.” But now, there is a shift to “know the context” and “know the story.” This shift is because, truthfully, trafficking can be very subtle. Grappling with the trafficking trap effectively likewise requires nuance.
We Need A Better Conversation About How to Protect Kids from Online Trafficking and Exploitation
Children are increasingly engaged in social media especially with chat channels for video games, and while a seemingly easy solution would be just to forbid use of social media, that would both ignore the reality that children are going to find ways to be online and they may even have to be online for school or other activities, and it ignores the fact that for children who are abused at home, or are otherwise deeply excluded or bullied in real life, friendships and resources online might literally be a lifeline to them. (If you were ever part of the mommy blogger community of the early to mid-2000s, or other similar forums, you can likely testify to the importance of friendships with people you met online to help inform and emotionally sustain you through an isolating and challenging time.)
There is one thing we can say unequivocally, as an easy, iron-clad rule for young people
Never share explicit photos of videos of yourself online, even in a channel you think is private, even with a person you trust unreservedly. Once something is shared digitally, there is almost zero personal control over it. Even if you delete it, many social media platforms still keep it stored somewhere, and for whatever time it was available, others could have taken a screenshot of it, downloaded it, and have infinite capacity to share it. Survivors of this kind of abuse talk about being haunted forever after, fearful of being recognized in the images or in real life as the children who were in the images.
We also know of a case of an underage boy using footage that he filmed of his underage girlfriend when they were dating, and selling it online in multiple places after they had broken up – and this was also identified as trafficking. In the context of their relationship at the time, he probably seemed trustworthy to her.
And the trauma of “sextortion” is so intense for young people, an FBI study reviewing a sample of sextortion cases found that more than a quarter of them led to suicide or attempted suicide. The consequences are severe.
Other things are tougher
The more difficult thing to navigate, though, is how to have an online relationship safely. If we move forward with the idea that kids are going to be online, how can we help them do so in a safe way? Does this mean never befriend someone you haven’t met in person? Remember that many trafficking situations involve a person the victim already knows and trusts. Does this mean never have an in-person meeting with someone you only know online? How does that guideline square for children who are abused by family and are looking to escape? A hotline or call to a safe house organization could be their way out, and yet they might have only discovered it online.
A related problem lies with children seeing their value in attention they get online: the number of likes, comments, friend requests, and shares – it’s an incredible form of social pressure for young people who are still navigating what their values are, their identity, and the basis of their own self-worth. And if we’re being honest, it’s an issue that adults grapple with too, with the Instagram influencer culture constantly pushing us to feel that we’re not enough as we are, and that we can take just a few easy steps or that if we just buy these products, it’s possible to be more than we are right now. If we’re grappling with this ourselves, what are we modeling for our children about the importance of physical beauty and carefully crafted images, and what is their takeaway about what we give of ourselves online in exchange for likes?
We can’t pretend those pressures aren’t there, it’s probably a big ask to expect children to stay away from them altogether, and it’s unlikely that people will en masse boycott all social media until these tech platforms finally confront these issues responsibly. In any case, ignoring it completely would still leave youth clueless about how to navigate it when they do come of age, and it’s not as though we should stop caring about exploitation just because someone turned 18.
For now, the only real tool in our toolkit is guidance and mentorship. Be the safe space that children need. Children need at least one stable relationship with an adult they can trust – a family member, a teacher, some role model they can turn to for advice and help, and know that they won’t be shamed for it. Our organization has consistently chosen the path of deep relationships: mentors who work with children and their families, who are there through all the challenges, and can advise and help advocate for the things they need. The result is our scholarship kids have learned to recognize potential exploitation and have even acted to protect their friends in danger of exploitation, and if they feel that they are themselves vulnerable, they’ve called their staff mentor for help.
According to one survey, while over 90% of parents say they talk to their kids about online safety, 60% of teens say they “rarely” or “never” have these conversations with their parents – there’s clearly a disconnect. And further, 20% of parents say they feel unprepared or ill-equipped to monitor their children’s online activity. (This proportion is likely much higher among the parents of our scholarship children, many of whom did not complete formal education.)
It can be intimidating to try to stay on top of all the various social media channels, language, and functions. But for their safety, it’s critical that we be willing to engage with the complexity to try to help them learn how to block or report nefarious users and activity, to know they don’t have to face it all alone, and to constantly remind them to listen to themselves when they feel unsafe.