Human Trafficking + Social Media*

At Project B3, we do not like to be alarmists or write about things that will instill an unnecessary fear or worry in parents of preteens and adults. But, the truth is, sometimes we have to give you uncomfortable, scary information because it is fact-based and relevant to our audience. Sometimes in life, we choose to ignore horrible, violent and frightening things that happen in this world, but that doesn’t mean that they are not occurring. And one day, these horrific things may affect our lives or our families.  Social Media has it’s pros and it’s cons and we prefer to shed light on both. Today, we are focusing on a major con.

Unfortunately, social media has opened new avenues for sexual violence against women. Human trafficking is one major example of this.

According to Psychology Today, “Traffickers often groom and control their victims through online platforms. Between 2015 and 2018, the National Human Trafficking Hotline documented almost 1,000 cases of potential victims of sex trafficking alone who were recruited through internet platforms, most often Facebook, but also Instagram, Snapchat, Craigslist, online dating sites, and chat rooms. A recent nationally representative survey of more than 1,000 American kids age 13 to 17 found that 70 percent of them used social media multiple times a day.”

‘Predators can easily pose online as someone looking for a date in order to build trust and recruit victims. Traffickers often identify vulnerable young people through their social media presence. For example, posts that may suggest low self-esteem, problems at home, or loneliness can signal to a trafficker that a person may be easily victimized.

Recruiting victims online is generally much less risky than recruiting victims in person. Sometimes when victims are recruited through social media sites, they never even meet their traffickers in person. A 2018 study found that 55 percent of domestic minor sex trafficking survivors who became victims in 2015 or later reported meeting their traffickers for the first time using text, a website, or a mobile app.

The study also found that 58 percent of victims eventually met their traffickers face to face, but 42 percent of those who initially met their traffickers online never met their traffickers in person but were still trafficked. In these cases, the power over the victims tends to be exerted through grooming and manipulation, as well as coercion and threats that equal “sextortion.” According to the FBI, sextortion is a serious crime that occurs when someone threatens to distribute your private and sensitive material if you don’t provide them images of a sexual nature, sexual favors, or money.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children began tracking this trend in 2013. The center has seen a dramatic increase in sextortion cases reported. There are numerous cases of women being victimized by traffickers who threaten to post their nude photos online if they do not comply with the traffickers’ demands.

Traffickers also use social media for deceptive or fraudulent job advertisements. Some traffickers recruit victims through illegitimate job offers for models, nannies, or dancers. Sometimes these deceptions are facilitated through fake business profiles, sham event pages on Facebook, or posts on sites like Craigslist.

Traffickers may also contact potential victims directly, claiming to be a recruiter for a modeling agency or the owner of another kind of legitimate business. The trafficker will also usually spend some time interacting with potential victims to build trust before an “official job offer” is made in order to increase the likelihood that the victim will trust the trafficker and perceive the job to be real. Research has found that migrant workers who have been trafficked into the U.S. for labor often perceive job postings on Facebook to be more valid and trustworthy than those on other sites.

As the use of technology continues to increase, trafficking and sexual violence facilitated by digital platforms will also continue unless we do more to stop it.

The Polaris Project, which is dedicated to preventing human trafficking. On their website, it has a five-question quiz on social media and relationships, designed to help spread awareness about this problem. It also has links to the major social media sites’ safety centers.

Internet Safety 101, which includes recommendations for parents to prevent children from falling prey to traffickers. This includes setting age-appropriate filters, using monitoring/accountability software, prohibiting access to chat rooms, regularly monitoring use, setting time limits, using safe search engines, utilizing parental controls, and other ideas. They have parental guides to all social media sites on their website.

CDC Guide to Parental Monitoring, which also provides practical tips on how to effectively monitor their children.

(Source: Mellissa Withers is an associate professor of global health at the University of Southern California’s Online Master of Public Health program)

At Project B3, we know that we can do a large part in keeping our children safe online. We teach them not to interact with strangers online, not to post personal information about themselves and to never, ever share intimate or explicit photos of themselves through text or social media. Many teens are looking for their first jobs at this age and we need to help them find legitimate resources to find employment. As always, as parents and caregivers, talk with your kids about what they are doing online and  who they are talking to. #BeSafe & #BeSmart!