The Digital Age is synonymous with life-changing technology that infiltrates the lives of all members of the global community. Technology has made the global community faster, more efficient, and indubitably more dangerous. Social media dominates the technological realm, offering thousands of unchecked, uncensored, and unapologetically intrusive mediums by which people across cultures and customs can communicate.
We teach our children the antiquated “stranger danger” lessons, preaching to them that it is unwise to accept a stranger’s invitation into a dilapidated utility van; yet we offer no advice to mirror the dangers that are prevalent in the digital community. Yes, the internet is dangerous. Yes, we have heard many times that the internet is dangerous. We have become so desensitized to the actual dangers of the internet because having the world at our fingertips is something that we are used to. When you use the internet every single day without encountering a predator, you become blind to the notion of predators being out there, lurking under the facade of online connections that social media outlets provide.
While Gen-Z and preceding generations grew up riding bikes and climbing trees, most of today’s youth grew up with tablets and iPads, becoming far more technologically competent than most adults. In 2018, Common Sense conducted a survey of American teenagers, finding that 70% of teenagers utilize social media multiple times a day. This figure is a 36% increase from the same study Common Sense conducted in 2012. The technological generations are well familiarized with the severity of cyberbullying and other negative impacts that social media might have, but we do not impart upon our children the prolific practice of grooming taking place on social media.
“Grooming" is the term used to describe the predatory process of gaining someone’s trust with the intent to later exploit them. Victims of grooming are usually children, teens, or other vulnerable populations who were manipulated into becoming a participant in their own exploitation. Traffickers target vulnerable individuals in order to gain trust and personal information before slowly isolating their target, sometimes creating a mirage of camaraderie and affection by offering to be a listening ear, an intimate partner, a mentor, a financial source, or a friend, among other things. With an extensive choice of social media platforms connecting all corners of the globe and the increased use of such platforms by young persons, the potential for grooming victims and luring them into trafficking is at an all-time high.
The use of social media fuels human trafficking, as seen in a 2018 study illustrating how 55% of minor sex trafficking survivors first came in contact with their trafficker via the internet, social media apps, or dating apps. Online recruiting imposes less of a risk to traffickers, as you can become anyone on the internet with a few short clicks through stock images to find a profile picture and inspiration for a fake profile. Online recruitment not only allows the trafficker to have easy access to a number of victims but provides a platitude of personal information about each victim, which makes it easier for the trafficker to study, groom, and exploit their target.
One of the main methods of trafficking through the internet is sexual exploitation. Our society is consumed by sexual content, sending a message to our youth that your body image is synonymous with your worth. Perpetrators capitalize on this concept, appealing to the natural human desire to feel loved, beautiful, and wanted by reinforcing the distorted idea of worth being a matter of appearance in addition to affection from others. Once the victim falls prey to the false sense of affection and love from their trafficker, the trafficker will often customarily solicit intimate pictures from their victim and use the nude pictures to extort them. This process is called sextortion and has increasingly been used by traffickers in cases of minors aged 8-17 as a way to threaten and coerce the minors into compliance and continued trafficking. The Federal Human Trafficking Report published last June reinforces the profound effect technology has on trafficking, provided that 83% of active trafficking cases opened in 2020 involved online solicitation.
The technology to aid in the identification of online traffickers exists but is rarely used by social platforms (if at all). Most social networking applications rely on user diligence to report nefarious conduct online, but users seldom make reports of such conduct. As a technological commonwealth, we must be aware not only of the dangers outside our front doors, but the dangers that are one click away. We must be real with our children and educate them on safe internet practices and how to preserve themselves online.
The online enticement of children is a heinous method by which traffickers perpetuate the business of trafficking, with reports of online enticement increasing 97.5% over the course of a single year. We are scared for our youth to encounter the evils of our contemporary world but frequently fail to hone in on the issue that rests in the palm of each child’s hand. By being compassionate, communicative, and present, we can lessen the desire within our youth to seek a safe space with an online stranger and preserve the safety and innocence of younger generations.