Sixty-nine million is a huge number, right? That's the number of child sexual abuse images and videos that were reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 2019. It's a number that should not only shock us, but appall us. Ninety-four percent of those images came from social media. Although the numbers for 2020 have not yet been released, they estimate a 125% increase due to Covid-19 and the amount of time teenagers are spending online.
Our kids are being exploited online at an alarming rate. While we may feel safer with them tucked away in our home during this pandemic, the truth is they have never been in more danger of being exploited. Contrary to popular belief, our children are significantly more likely to be trafficked online than if they met a stranger at the mall.
Traffickers are experts at meeting and manipulating unsuspecting kids online. They often pretend to be a friend of the same age, a romantic interest, or even a talent scout who can offer fame and fortune. Once they can identify a felt need of their victim, they can begin the process of exploiting that child. It often does not happen overnight; rather, it's gradual coercion until the child feels trapped and doesn't know how to get out or is afraid for their safety if they tell their parents. For example, a headshot turns into a bathing suit shot and eventually into a nude photo that is used to control and manipulate the child. Children don't even need to leave their homes to be sexually trafficked. Providing sexual images or videos for a trafficker to sell online is just another form of trafficking we aren't accustomed to contemplating.
If you are assuming that the creators of your kid's favorite apps are doing their best to prevent this horrible situation, then you are mistaken. This multi-billion dollar industry is corrupt and insidious, and your only prevention is to become your child's advocate and know precisely how they are spending their time online. Here are three things you can do to build safety for your children.
Talk openly with your children about the very real dangers of being on social media and sharing content with the world.
Create boundaries to prevent a trafficker from contacting them online. Some options include keeping computers in open areas to eliminate privacy, setting up private accounts on social media instead of public ones that allow access to anyone, and setting timers on your household technology to shut off during the night.
Check your kids' technology regularly and be aware if they seem protective of showing you what they are doing both on their computer and on their smartphone.
Taking these steps will help protect your children from becoming a statistic of online trafficking. Until we can convince big tech to make the changes we need to protect our kids, their safety is in our hands, and they need our guidance more than ever.