If parents still think of red light districts or ghettos when they hear the term ‘sex trafficking,’ they’re way off the mark. Internet and smartphone apps have given way to virtual trafficking networks. Encrypted chatting apps and other similar technologies are used by online predators to sell sexual services or pornography on multiple platforms. What’s worse is that children are the worst victims of online abuse facilitated by predators on apps and websites. Fortunately, awareness about this issue is being raised with the popular hashtags #savethechildren and #saveourchildren.
Overload of Sexual Content
Most parents have no inkling just how much sex their teenagers are exposed to on the internet. As per a 2005 study, 13% of the American youth (ages 10-17) were exposed to unwanted sexual solicitation on the internet. As of 2020, that number stands at 25%. In all of these cases, the predators attempted to make real contact with the victims. In the USA, 15% of cell phone using children (ages 12-17) admitted to receiving sexually suggestive texts or pictures from strangers. These disturbing requests and contacts keep getting worse as children reach the adolescent stage.
Virtual Trafficking Networks
• In the USA, 2 out of 3 victims of sex trafficking are marketed or sold online.
• A research team looked into global child sex trafficking rings. Out of all the underage survivors who were surveyed, 75% stated that they were marketed on internet platforms. In 2004, that figure stood at only 38%.
• Out of the 8,500 prostitution-related advertisements posted online in the UK every month, many are suspected to be trafficked children.
• Globally, over 150,000 prostitution-related ads are posted on the internet every day.
• Multiple reports have proven that more and more traffickers are using apps and social media platforms to lure underage victims. These platforms are also used by sexual predators to communicate, share illegal pornography, or advertise human trafficking victims.
• The average age of underage sexual trafficking victims is 12-14 years old in the US.
Riskiest Apps and Websites
The social apps and websites where random strangers can communicate with each other (such as Omegle and ChatRoulette) are important to be aware of. Yet, mainstream apps such as Facebook or Instagram are equally infested with predators. Nowadays, almost every online platform offers anonymous chatting options, especially multiplayer games. The apps that have the worst track record at screening users include –
• Hot or Not
Recent Horror Stories
• In 2019, a predator hacked numerous Snapchat accounts of children aged under 16 years old. Then, he proceeded to extort sexually explicit content from many of the victims.
• Last year, the notorious hashtag called ‘#dropboxlinks’ was used by predators to share child pornography. They used Instagram’s direct message feature to target children and share their ‘plunders’ with fellow predators. As soon as Instagram took down the #dropboxlinks, other hashtags popped up. Some other notorious hashtags used by Instagram predators include #tradedropbox, #bathtime, #diaperchange, #chickenlover, #inandout, etc.
• In the past, predators have directly contacted children on Instagram. Many cases even demonstrate that police don’t treat online activities or messages as real threats, although this maybe be due to their limited resources and the overwhelming number of predators.
Understanding Why Online Predators Love the Internet and the Apps
There’s enough proof to suggest that predators prefer using the internet for their nefarious activities. Internet platforms offer one-stop solutions – predators recruit vulnerable children on these websites, advertise their products, and create a network of predators.
• Selling child sex trafficking victims directly on the internet is cheaper and safer. Users can use VPNs to stay anonymous, leaving zero digital traces.
• These platforms are making traffickers who work in groups more efficient. They can exploit victims of all ages, irrespective of geographic boundaries.
• The same platforms where your children talk about video games or cartoons are specifically targeted by these monsters to –
– Get in touch with countless children as anonymous accounts or with fake profiles.
– Groom the most vulnerable or responsive children.
– Recruit the child into child-sex trafficking by making ‘sexual conversations.’
– Force children to send explicit images.
– These images are instantly circulated and sold for money on that very platform.
The online predators act mostly anonymously and they use code terms that keep changing all the time. However, there are many third-party websites where predators openly share suggestive images, videos, or ads based around the theme of prostituting children.
How Digital Grooming Works
Digital grooming process takes place in multiple stages. First, the predators target their underage victims. They target any and every public platform where children create accounts. The victims are chosen based on their vulnerabilities, responsiveness, and data access. For instance, a child who has left his or her geolocation switched on may get surged by message requests from predators that are in the same area.
Once a child responds to one of these ‘baits’, the predator attempts to form friendships by feigning hobbies or similar mental problems or family situations. After building rapport, the suggestive messages start pouring in. All attempts to create ‘special relationships’ are made by the perpetrators. If the child continues to pay attention to the predator, the sexual exploitation soon follows. These offenders assess the victim’s family situations (for instance, children who spend their time on their own at home face a higher risk of being targeted). The predators stress on the need for secrecy. They do so to reduce the risks of getting caught and to isolate the child from family members.
There’s no specific pattern of online grooming. Most processes start spontaneously. The offenders hone their manipulation skills on each victim. However, the end objective of all online grooming processes is always sexual exploitation. The children may be forced to send explicit images/video or coerced into meeting the predator in real life.
Why Digital Grooming Contributes to a Never-Ending Cycle
Underage victims of abuse often become perpetrators when they grow up. Trafficked children (especially the ones with criminal records) turn to criminal activities. Ironically, these victims become part of the system that harmed them.
Every year, technology-driven child sex traffickers become more proficient at operating on digital platforms. There are not enough tools or methods to track these serial offenders. Most offenders continue committing child abuse long after their first experience. The lack of repercussions creates an unending cycle of abusers and abused children.
How Can Parents React When They Realize their Children Face Technological Risks?
Most parents are shocked when they learn about the risks their child’s facing on online platforms. There’s no prescribed decision-making process. The first step as a citizen should be to report the people contacting your child to the local authorities. At a household level, parents can opt for one of these strategies:
Limiting Phone Use
Limiting your child’s access to mobile phones and the internet is a prohibitory strategy. Many experts complain that fully eliminating a potential risk is never possible through suppression or censorship.
Parents can anticipate risks by ethically tracking their children’s phones. Tools such as MMGuardian are designed to solve this very problem. By installing MMGuardian on a child’s device, parents can monitor their child’s activity and be alerted if concerning messages related to predators, suicidal thoughts, drugs, and many other categories are detected. They will also have access to an extensive set of other features such as contact blocking, time limits, web filtering, location tracking, and much more.
To get started with MMGuardian and receive a 14-day free trial, click here.
Consider also joining our Facebook group “Tech-Savvy Parenting” to discuss raising kids in the 21st century with other parents.
Teach Your Kids to Be Resilient
When children are treated with trust and introduced to modern-day technological risks via efficient education, they are better prepared to avoid potential predators on the internet. It’s not always possible to mitigate all risks. Soon enough, parents will have to help their children adapt to this dangerous virtual world. Education about technological risks gives youngsters a chance to create appropriate coping mechanisms.
The Need for Societal Consciousness
Even international law hasn’t identified tech-facilitated online grooming and trafficking as a serous risk. How many child sex trafficking victims need to be recruited and how many young children have to be advertised as sex objects before international legislation puts an end to the loopholes on top child-friendly digital platforms that the predators so fittingly exploit? Once government mandated regulations are passed, tech companies will be forced to do more. Tools such as MMGuardian prove that the resources, the programming skills, and the knowledge are there. We can develop tech-based solutions to tackle this tech-driven issue. However, until something happens on governmental levels, parents need to do their utmost best. Using MMGuardian and learning about the risks that social platforms pose to your children is a great first step!
For more information about online predators, check out our in-depth article.