Parents, take a moment to imagine, “some scary person comes to your front door, knocks on it and asks to talk to your 12-year-old child. You would look at them, slam the door on their face, and probably call the police” (Kirsta Melton, Office of the Texas Attorney General, 2018). It is chilling to think that this may be happening everyday as your child surfs the web and uses apps on their cell phone. UnBound has worked with children that are being approached by traffickers on social media, online gaming platforms, and apps like musical.ly or Snapchat.
There’s no easy fix, but here are some basic steps every parent can take to help keep kids safe from traffickers on social media:
1. Monitor your teen’s internet and social media usage
In addition to placing computers and gaming stations in a common area, you should supervise your children’s use of technology by monitoring their app usage and social media accounts. Pay specific attention to platforms where your teens can hold private conversations, such as Instagram, Snapchat, Xbox Live, or Facebook Messenger. This includes not allowing your child to have access to their phones and gaming stations overnight so that traffickers can communicate with them while they are unsupervised. Taking your teen’s phone at night also provides you with an opportunity to oversee their accounts.
Many teens are learning to hide apps on their phones, and there are apps available to help them do that. Open each app and search for hidden apps. Feeling overwhelmed trying to figure this out? There are tons of videos on YouTube teaching teens these tricks, like this one. The best way to keep your kids safe with the technology you’re providing them is to learn the tricks yourself.
2. Require your teen to have private social media accounts
If your teen has a public Instagram or Snapchat account, anyone can access their pictures and send them private messages. Teens frequently add information to their bio or social media profiles that contains identifying details, such as their school, their relationship status, or the city that they live in. All of these public details are used by traffickers who target teens. Once the trafficker forms a relationship and gains the teen’s trust, they often ask to meet up in person. It is important to speak to your teen about the dangers of this behavior. Videos like this can be shown to teens in order to demonstrate the gravity of their behaviors.
3. Ask your teen not to tag their pictures, or share locations
Teens will often add locations when they post pictures on Instagram or Facebook. By tagging a picture or sharing their location, they are allowing predators to know locations that they frequent. This is especially dangerous when students tag their locations at their school or their homes. Snapchat poses a unique risk, since replying to a trafficker on this app would allow them to know where your teen is located in real time.
4. Know the signs of online grooming
Traffickers often use subtle means of recruitment and grooming to gain the trust of their victims before exploitation. In a study done by the University of Southern California, researchers found that, “social networking sites, in particular, have become an important element in the child grooming process. These technologies, popular with the digital/virtual generation, allow offenders to make contact with children and even masquerade as children in cyberspace to secure their trust and cooperation” (Latonero, Berhane, Hernandez, Mohebi, & Movius, 2011). Teens with history of abuse are especially vulnerable. If your child has been abused inside or outside of the home, counseling services can help keep them safe, and there are many free counseling services available. If you are looking for a way to explain this to your teen but are not sure where to start, check out this helpful video from B4UClick to educate your teen about online grooming.
5. Get tech savvy
Technology can be your greatest friend or your greatest foe. There are numerous risks with unsupervised technology, but there are also great programs that help keep parents informed and kids safe. For example, My Mobile Watchdog provides a software platform that allows parents to view their teen’s text messages, calls, applications, and mobile internet activity. Other, options include Net Nanny, which allows you to block pornography and internet content that you deem inappropriate by filtering websites in real time. In a study of 1500 10-17 year olds, they found that 42% of the participants were exposed to porn that year (Janis Wolak, Kimberly Mitchell, David Finkelhor, 2007). Of the 42% that were exposed to porn, 66% of the youth were exposed against their will (Janis Wolak, Kimberly Mitchell, David Finkelhor, 2007). The negative effects of being unwillingly exposed to explicit sexual content at a young age can be prevented. Take steps to ensure that your kids are safe.
While it is important to explain the dangers of risky internet and social media behaviors with your teens, parents need to realize that their teen’s brain is not fully developed. Physiologically, teens have an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex which is the portion of the brain that aids in rational decision making and impulse control. Based on this underdevelopment, teens are less likely to, “think before they act, pause to consider the consequences of their actions, [and] change their dangerous or inappropriate behaviors” (American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 2016). As a parent, or guardian it is your job to monitor your child’s behavior in order help keep them safe from human trafficking.
American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. (2016). Teen Brain: Behavior, problem solving, and decision making. Retrieved from https://www.aacap.org/aacap/families_and_youth/facts_for_families/FFF-Guide/The-Teen-Brain-Behavior-Problem-Solving-and-Decision-Making-095.aspx
Latonero, M., Berhane, G., Mohebi, T., Movius, L. (2011). Human trafficking online: The role of social networking sites and online classifieds. Retrieved from http://ec.europa.eu/anti-trafficking/sites/antitrafficking/files/humantrafficking_online_the_role_of_social_networking_sites_and_online_classifieds_1.pdf
Office of the Texas Attorney General. (2018). Be the one. Retrieved from https://texasattorneygeneral.gov/human-traffickingWolak, J., Mitchell, K., & Finkelhor, D. (2007). Unwanted and wanted exposure to online pornography in a national sample of youth internet users. Pediatrics, 119(2), 247-257. 10.1542/peds.2006-1891