Today’s internet is incredible. It allows connection in an unprecedented way, and when used appropriately, is a powerful tool to foster community and belonging.
Unfortunately, when human dignity and worth are ignored, the internet can be a dangerous place for people of all ages—but especially children and adolescents who are still learning about their own worth, exploring what human connection looks like, and developing their own sense of security and danger.
In this installment of our “How to protect your kids from traffickers” series, we’re going to focus on the online sphere. Parents should start with basic online safety, and use one of the countless good resources online to limit access to adult content and set internet rules in your home—just Google “protect my child online”. Rather than repeat that, we’re going to focus here on how to identify trafficking attempts, and what to do if one should make it through your filters and family rules.
First, we encourage you to read our introduction to this series. It lays the groundwork for some concepts we’ll talk about in this blog.
What might an online trafficking attempt look like?
Trafficking attempts online can come from someone your child knows, a mutual friend, or a complete stranger. While it’s wise to encourage your kids not to connect with anyone they don’t know in real life—it’s not a failsafe rule. Traffickers often start with fairly casual and mundane connections—a friend request on Facebook, a few likes on Instagram, an interaction on SnapChat—but progress to direct and private communication quickly. It may or may not be overtly flirtatious or sexual in the beginning—but it will probably be full of flattery and attempts to connect emotionally and build trust.
Traffickers often impersonate someone who is more likely to be trusted by a teenager—like another teenager, or a young adult. They also often send out many messages, waiting to see who replies—or send friend requests to many kids in the same local area, so it looks like there are common friends when they approach their target.
It may seem innocent, but here are a few key things your child or teenager can ask themselves:
Are there repeated compliments? Is the person on the other end of this chat trying to win me over by making me feel good about myself? Are they focusing on how my body looks?
Is this person offering things that seem like a big deal? For example, an expensive pair of shoes, a trip, a purse/bag, a new phone, etc. They might make a job offer—something exciting like modeling or acting. Even if they say no strings are attached or there’s no catch, traffickers often promise (and deliver on) material goods or jobs that they later use to manipulate and exploit. “I bought you that new iPhone—you owe me.”
Promises of love and a better life
If I’ve shared the struggles in my life, like issues with my parents or drama with my friends, have they sympathized with me and then offered to help fix my problems (like buying me something I need or protecting me)? Have they promised to take care of me, talked about “true love” or a better/happier life with them?
Separation from natural support systems
As I’ve expressed frustration with my family or friends, have they encouraged me to not trust them? Have they encouraged me to not tell my family and friends about our chats? Have they told me they’re the only one who really cares—and my parents, siblings, other family members, or friends obviously don’t?
This is all part of the trust-building process. Traffickers are excellent at trust-building. They know how to spot the vulnerable, win their loyalty, separate them from their natural supports, and then ask them for favors. Sex trafficking victims often feel powerful and valued by giving these favors and don't recognize the deceit until years after the harm and abuse. By being able to spot the deception early on, your child will be more adept to shut down the exploitative relationships online—before they meet in person.
What to do if you suspect a trafficking attempt is happening?
We know that not every flattering statement is a trafficking attempt. We know that teenage love happens—and it can sometimes look like promises of love. Look for the big picture and the broader pattern—are there multiple signs? Are the signs adding up? Is my internal alarm going off that something is askew?
It’s important to note that even if you’ve set up internet rules, and monitor your child’s activity, you still may not be able to see the conversations they have. Traffickers often encourage their target to leave a “parent-approved” messaging platform for something that isn’t being monitored—or delete chat records and conversation history.
This is where the principle in our first blog—creating a safe space for your children to talk to you—is critical. After you’ve discussed the warning signs with your child, invite them to come to you if they suspect something is “off”. Let them know that, even if there’s content in the conversation that you disapprove of, they are welcome to come to you without fear or shame. Let them know that you’ll work through the problem together—and that their safety is paramount to you. If they do come to you, stay calm, don’t show them judgment, and start the process of working through it together.
If you discover a situation with imminent danger contact law enforcement immediately. Remember that although we’ve described common trends, every situation may look different. If you’re looking for advice on a specific situation you can also call the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
Here are some steps your child can take when they see the signs adding up to indicate a trafficking attempt:
Evaluate your safety.
Your safety is the most important consideration once a conversation has been started with a potential trafficker. The two things you want to do immediately are separate yourself from that individual and quickly involve a trusted adult who can help you decide what to do next.
Stop the conversation.
If you see the signs of a trafficking attempt add up, stop the conversation. No need to say “goodbye” or part ways graciously—stop the conversation. The person on the other end might use tactics to make you feel loyal to them, or guilty for not responding, and try to keep you engaged. If this happens, it is best to stop opening or checking those messages until you can share them with a trusted adult. If need be, turn your phone off.
Report and Block.
Talk to a trusted adult, share what’s been happening, and ask for their input. They can help you evaluate the situation, decide whether blocking the person is enough or whether they should be reported on the app or website for inappropriate or abusive behavior. You may decide you need to report to the police as well.
It’s possible once you’ve blocked someone on one platform, they’ll try to reach out to you again on a different platform. If that happens, report and block them there too. If the person you’re messaging with makes any threats of physical violence against you, your family, or anyone you know—take that seriously and notify a trusted adult so you can get help together.
Remind your children and teenagers that it is never a good idea to meet someone they met online in person without the knowledge and supervision of a trusted adult. As we mentioned earlier, traffickers often lie about who they are—and they can be male or female and any age. Peers are often used to recruit other peers because they’re less likely to raise suspicion.
We can—and should!—try with all our might to protect our children from trafficking attempts, but at the end of the day, we need our children to know what an attempt might look like, and know how to react and protect themselves if one arises.
There are excellent ways to set up boundaries for your children as they interact online—but the best defense against trafficking attempts is a high standard of love, knowledge of self-worth, empowerment to self-advocate, and having safe, trusted adults to go to when uncomfortable or dangerous situations arise.