As COVID-19 continues to spread across Canada and the rest of the world, most of us have found ourselves adhering to strict stay-at-home orders. For children, this provides more time to access the internet, many of whom will be doing so unsupervised. As a result, the COVID-19 pandemic has provided an increased opportunity for traffickers and those who want to exploit children to enter the homes of thousands of unsuspecting families.
As a survivor of sex trafficking, an anti-trafficking advocate, and an educator, I am aware of the tactics that traffickers use to lure and groom young people into the sex trade. A response to a seemingly innocent message like “Hello Beautiful” received on a social media platform, like Tik Tok or Instagram, can begin the grooming process in which traffickers work tirelessly to build bonds with victims. This could be under the guise of a friendship, a romantic relationship, or even a mentor. However, the objective is always the same — to gain the trust of victims by any means necessary.
Due to strict stay-at-home orders to limit the spread of COVID-19, online interaction could be the only form of social connection for many children, and this facilitates the grooming process for traffickers. The grooming process begins with traffickers showering victims with attention, compliments, and online engagement, which can evolve to pressure or threats for victims to send sexual images and videos of themselves. Once sent, traffickers can blackmail victims with the threat of sharing or selling photos or videos to keep victims under their control. Moreover, once the stay-at-home orders are lifted, traffickers can pressure victims they spent weeks grooming during the pandemic to meet in-person.
So, what can parents do to prevent their children from being exploited? Parents can educate themselves in order to have informed conversations with their children about online safety, exploitation, and sex trafficking. A free educational tool for parents and children created by myself and Reframe Health Lab is available to assist. The animated video “What is Sex Trafficking?” provides an overview of how traffickers lure, groom, and exploit their victims; use this educational tool to start the conversation with your children. This video was made prior to the pandemic. However, the content could not be more relevant given the sudden increase of internet use by children for school, gaming, or to socialize with friends, which makes them even more at risk.
To begin the conversation with your children, here are a few social media safety tips:
- Keep your profile private. Ensure that all of your children’s social media accounts are set to private — many social media platforms default accounts to a public setting. Remind your children to only friend or add people they know. Friends of friends do not count; if your children do not know someone personally, then that someone should not have access to your children’s profile.
- Be careful what you share. It should be made clear to children that whatever they post online could be seen by anyone and will likely stay online forever. I recommend what I call the family test. Tell children to ask themselves before they send or post a picture or a message if they would be comfortable with family members seeing it. If the answer is no, then they should not send or post it.
- Not everyone is who they appear to be. Because of the anonymity of the internet, anyone can pretend to be anyone. Traffickers will pretend to be any age or gender that they believe will help them connect with victims. To make it more difficult for traffickers to connect with your children online, you can suggest that they create fake profiles by using a different age, a different gender, an avatar as a profile picture, a pseudonym, or a combination.
Traffickers and those who want to harm children will not be deterred by COVID-19 or any other large scale emergency. In fact, they might be emboldened by a crisis because it can increase their access to children who are on the internet for more extended periods. So, we must be vigilant. Parents need to educate themselves and continuously talk with their children about the dangers of using the internet. Given the increased risk for children, this is not the time to claim ignorance; predators are out there actively looking for children to exploit. Thus, parents should arm themselves with as much knowledge as possible. The best way to end trafficking is to prevent it from happening in the first place.
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