By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice
January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month, and a lot of attention has been focused on human trafficking at our southwest border. However, the vast majority of human trafficking victims in the United States are U.S. citizens.
Many children are targeted by traffickers within the United States. Consequently, parents should take a proactive role in protecting their children from human traffickers.
Human traffickers commonly use deception, coercion and false promises to lure their child victims. Once traffickers separate children from their parents or home, the trafficker exerts full control by prohibiting the child from escaping. In addition, human traffickers commonly threaten harm to their victims if they tell anyone about their exploitation.
The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Human Trafficking
Parents need to understand the risks of human trafficking, which can occur virtually anywhere. They also need to take active steps to prevent their children from being influenced by or exposed to traffickers.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly influential in increasing human trafficking in the United States. For instance, the Department of State says that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the number of people who may become victims, because human traffickers have used the problems people have experienced during the pandemic to further exploit their victims.
In particular, the Department of State has identified several factors that have contributed to the risk of human trafficking during the pandemic. These factors include stay-at-home orders, reduced livelihood options, school closures and barriers to healthcare that could be otherwise be used to help a victim escape from human trafficking.
Parents Should Monitor Their Children’s Internet Activities
For children, the COVID-19 pandemic has been especially risky. During school closures, for instance, more children have used the internet to occupy their time.
Unfortunately, the internet is also a breeding ground for traffickers, who scour the internet for children who display certain vulnerabilities. These vulnerabilities include:
- Accessing the internet without adequate adult supervision
- Being online when parents are away from the home
- Having unrestricted access to social media or social media accounts without proper privacy settings
- Meeting new online friends who have not been personally vetted by their parents
- Sharing personally identifying information online
- Complaining about home life or parents online
How Victim Grooming Occurs
Traffickers target both boys and girls with a common age of 12-19 years old. However, some trafficking victims have been as young as nine years old.
Once a trafficker identifies a vulnerable child online, the grooming process begins immediately. Traffickers are very skilled at deceiving children. They can research the social media profiles of children and use a fake profile to approach a child. Often, the child believes that the trafficker is another child as well and feels comfortable talking to a peer.
In other situations, traffickers develop an online relationship where they make lavish promises to the child that involve giving the child a better life. Traffickers also provide compliments to kids with low self-esteem, as well as fake job opportunities and even expensive gifts such as cell phones and clothing. The goal in this grooming by traffickers is to gain the child’s trust and convince the child to meet the trafficker in person without parental knowledge.
How Parents Can Improve Their Cybersecurity to Protect Their Children
To protect children from predatory human traffickers on the internet, parents should be fully involved in their child’s digital world and internet use. It is vital to discuss internet safety with children and to clarify parental expectations for online activity.
In addition, children should be taught what red flags to notice on the internet. They should be provided with clear guidelines regarding what they can share online and what sites they can visit on the internet.
Parents have an important role in monitoring their child’s internet activity by ensuring proper privacy settings are in place on social media sites and utilizing parental controls. These parental controls can protect kids by prohibiting them from entering risky areas of the internet. Children should also be taught to avoid sharing personal information, photos, and videos on public forums or on social media sites with anyone outside of their friends and relatives.
In conclusion, parents have an essential role in protecting children from traffickers on the internet. If a parent suspects the online enticement or sexual exploitation of a child, they have several options: