When we first joined the mission to end trafficking, the most prevelent form it took in our region was in-person, and face-to-face, through a relationship of trust: a family member or friend offering a job or other opportunity to those desperate for financial relief. Just how much the victim and their loved ones knew about what they were getting into varied, but there was almost always at least some amount of deception leading to their exploitation.
Times have changed.
In the past decade, relatively inexpensive mobile phone and even smart phones have exploded across the region, and getting a data plan with at least some internet access is within the means of most—even those who struggle to pay bills. This means even kids from impoverished circumstances have phones and internet access.
Which means, through social media, predators have unprecedented access to them.
This is the new face of trafficking: building a friendship online that leads to “grooming”—gradually expanding a person’s boundaries to make what initially might have been unacceptable start to seem more acceptable.
Grooming is the pathway to online sexual exploitation and to trafficking.
According to Kru Ball, one of our staff members,
There’s a video chat program where you can talk to people around the world, and if you don’t want to talk to someone then you can swipe them away. So the kids have many opportunities to chat with people from other countries, which the students claim is a good chance to practice English—a valuable and coveted skill. The students say that in the videos, foreigners will also ask the students to take off their clothes.
Of course, those images don’t necessarily stop with the person viewing on the other end. They can be disseminated to others online, and indeed online sexual exploitation of children is a growing global trend that is beyond law enforcement’s capacity to counteract alone. And the parents don’t always have the knowledge or experience necessary to guide their children.
When we asked the students’ parents about it, the parents say their kids are going to bed very late, 3 or 4 am. Because the kids are able to use the app on their phones with data, their parents don’t know what they’re doing. The parents in our community largely are also uneducated and have very little knowledge of technology or the internet, so they don’t know what their students are doing. – Kru Ball
Our staff have found that this way of reaching students through social media is something new, and we’re seeing it much more than in-person trafficking. Instead of having an established face-to-face relationship through family or community, predators use messages and other ways to get to know students, and it starts as early as middle school.
As Kru Ball says,
The students like to use these social media apps because they can make more friends. They like the way it makes them feel. They want love and they want attention. These are kids who are feeling down or hopeless, and they are poor. When they get the messages, there are many reasons why they agree to do what’s asked in the messages, and often it’s because they feel like they are getting the things they need (like love and attention).
Combatting Trafficking in Social Media Technology
To combat this, our staff have delved deeper into provide more workshops like our 3-3-5 program, which teaches kids about their rights to body privacy, what sexual abuse is, and how to assert your own boundaries. Play acting ways to handle difficult situations is especially critical for kids who come from situations where they may not have been taught that their feelings matter, or who, for cultural reasons, may have trouble “disappointing” someone who is older or in a position of authority. We’re also discussing expanding these workshops to parents, to help equip them to protect their kids better.
Furthermore, our group and individual counseling sessions play a secondary, though no less vital role, because they help strengthen our students’ self-esteem and their relationships with family and friends. If their emotional needs are being met at home and in their daily lives, then they won’t need the attention of sketchy strangers so much.
More and more, anti-trafficking is becoming not just about providing external resources like jobs and income, but also about strengthening the resources within.