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By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice, American Military University
Social media continue to gain popularity and for good reason. They provide a platform for friends and families to communicate on a consistent basis even as technology continues to improve and expand their features.
Throughout the world, 4.3 billion people use social media, which are especially popular among children. For example, 5.7 million under the age of 11 have Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat accounts. Each of these social media platforms has age restrictions that are intended to keep young children from accessing them.
A Pew Research study found that 95 percent of teens between the ages of 13 and 17 reported having access to a smartphone and 45 percent indicated that they are online on a nearly constant basis.
Social Media Increases Risk of Children Being Exploited
Objectively, social media are not bad. The problem with their popularity among children is they increase the risk of being exploited by those involved in human trafficking and sex crimes. For example, the social medium video app TikTok has lately gained significant popularity with children with over 500 million users worldwide.
It is a platform where users are encouraged to post pictures of themselves dancing or engaging in some other physical activity. The problem is that there are not enough safety controls on TikTok, such as age verifications or content screening. A study by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children surveyed 40,000 school-age children and found that 25 percent indicated they have livestreamed with a stranger on a social medium platform.
According to the Polaris Project, which focuses on combating human trafficking, traffickers use social media to recruit and exploit victims. The National Human Trafficking Hotline receives recruitment reports in all forms of sex and labor trafficking from different social media platforms.
Traffickers Use Social Media to Groom Victims
Like chatrooms and other areas of the internet, traffickers use social media to develop a relationship with their intended victims through false promises and coercion. Some social media victimization cases have even included offering false job opportunities.
In 2018, Congress enacted legislation designed to allow for the prosecution of online marketplaces that are used for sex trafficking, such as websites offering illicit services. However, social media create challenges as they are less obvious than traditional commercial sex websites.
Another challenge – traffickers use social media to stalk targeted minor victims or by impersonating someone using a profile of someone the intended victim might trust. Traffickers gain intelligence on their victims by examining their posts, comments that they have made on other posts, and comments made by the victims’ friends on their posts.
Traffickers exploit vulnerabilities such as purported common interests between the trafficker and the victim. Once trust is gained, the trafficker encourages the victim to meet him or send him a compromising picture, which is then used to extort the victim. Through this extortion the traffickers might threaten to release the picture to the victim’s family and friends if he or she won’t comply with his demands.
Parents Must Restrict the Privacy on Their Children’s Social Media Accounts
Parents have an important role in protecting their children from online predators. For many social media platforms, the security default is often set at public, which means anyone can see a child’s photographs and personal information. Therefore, parents need to restrict the privacy on their children’s social media accounts.
It is important to note that even using privacy settings, posted information is still in the public domain. As a result, it is important to ensure that personal information such as cell phone numbers and addresses are not posted.
The next step is to teach children the importance of not sharing any personal information with online strangers; also, to ensure that they do not accept friend requests from people they do not know. Since traffickers may use fake profiles using the names of the child’s friends, it is important for parents to thoroughly check online profiles before they are accepted by ensuring there is a timeline that shows the profile is legitimate.
Proper parental oversight of their children’s social media accounts, and teaching them about the dangers associated with social media, can reduce the risk of their being targeted or exploited by human traffickers.
About the Author: Dr. Jarrod Sadulski has been involved in homeland security for over two decades and he is an associate professor at American Military University. He has engaged in speaking engagements in the United States, Europe, and Central America on topics such as local police response to domestic terrorism, human trafficking, and narcotics trafficking. Most recently, he presented at the 2019 International Human Trafficking Conference. His expertise includes infrastructure security, maritime security, homeland security contraband interdiction and intelligence gathering. Jarrod was selected as the Coast Guard’s Reserve McShan Inspirational Leadership Award recipient for 2019. To contact the author, email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.