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Peers vs. Strangers: Where’s the Danger?
February 23, 2023

There is growing awareness that “stranger danger” can be a distraction from how predators actually prey on children to abuse. People are becoming more aware that perpetrators are most often people within the child’s community – someone the child knows and trusts. While this perception is changing for abusers in person or “in real life,” there is still an assumption that online predators must be strangers. However, there is growing evidence that the perpetrators of online violence against children are not strangers either. The majority of the time, they’re acquaintances and peers.

Here’s What Online Danger Looks Like for Children

A study by the World Health Organization, “What works to prevent violence against children online?”, states that in studies of actual police-reported episodes of online grooming, most victims were 12 years or older, and that those arrested for the crimes were people they had known from face-to-face environments. Technology was used to build trust and relationships that facilitated the crimes. While deception was sometimes present, it wasn’t the dominant strategy. The victims were more often charmed with flattery, gifts, attention and offers of romance. The report goes on further to share that romantic relationships ending badly is often the context in which non-consensual sexting or sextortion happens. In this context, 90-100% of the offenders were other youth.

This finding matches what we observe where we work – that in many cases, trafficking can involve youth trafficking their friends. Vulnerable children find trading sex online to be a lucrative way to earn survival money and they share it with their friends, wanting to offer other youth in need the same opportunities.

Other forms of online violence against children include production and sharing of sexual images or videos, live streaming of abuse, cyberbullying, cyberstalking, and hacking and identity theft or fraud. While these are distinct categories of abuse and violence, in practice, there is often a lot of overlap, where abusers will engage in multiple forms of abuse online, as well as overlap between online and offline abuse. For this reason, prevention programs should aim for a holistic approach.

Here’s What Works to Protect Children

The World Health Organization’s review found strong evidence for the power of prevention education in reducing online violence against children. It also identified several key characteristics of successful prevention programs. These include using multiple methods and teaching styles/tools to engage children and promote learning (such as videos, games, discussions, readings, etc.). They also include having multiple lessons for repeated message exposure and reminders, role-playing to practice handling interactions, and whole-school and parental involvement to help create an aware environment and cultural norms that promote protection.

Effective prevention programs also emphasize the development of several soft skills, including skills in problem-solving, building assertiveness, empathy, self-regulation, and conflict-resolution.

We’ve observed the same with our own prevention programs, like the “3-3-5” training sessions we’ve been conducting with our scholarship students and kids in local schools, using play-based techniques to teach them to recognize abuse and counteract it. Success comes in a multi-faceted approach—arming children with knowledge and awareness of what is unsafe behavior or situation, teaching them techniques to protect themselves and their peers, building skills that encourage their empowerment, and creating a culture of non-acceptance in the face of abuse and an expectation that children should be protected from it.

Here Are Some Parting Thoughts 

On the one hand, to us, the reports’ findings are completely in line with our experience and are not surprising. On the other hand, the findings about the soft skills that are useful in protecting children against sexual violence are helpful, because those skills – problem-solving, assertiveness, empathy, self-regulation, and conflict-resolution – are just good skills to have in general.

Sex trafficking is an extreme form of violence, and as such, perhaps the perception of it is that it’s a distinct category of societal ill, different from other forms of violence. However, it might be more useful to think of sex trafficking on a continuum of other forms of manipulation. Other kinds of abusers, such as emotional abusers, fraudsters, and even cults, use similar techniques to prey on people – isolating their victims socially or even physically, overwhelming them with affection and flattery, and choosing people who are in situations of stress and offering the promise of a way out. So these same skills can be protective factors against abusive relationships in general.

Framing sex trafficking prevention in this way might be helpful for spreading the reach of prevention programs. Because sex trafficking is so extreme, many people might not see it as relevant to their lives. But framing it in the context of a wider spectrum of abuses, including much more common ones, might help people see the necessity of this kind of training and awareness raising. It’s one more way in which we can see trafficking not as this discrete, distinct problem that happens somewhere else and to somebody else, but rather that it intersects with a whole host of other problems we’re concerned about and grapple with every day.