COVID-19 Has Led to Increased Online Child Sexual Exploitation
Human traffickers are exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to prey on America’s children. It has provided traffickers with the perfect combination of more kids online at home and more distracted parents who have to juggle homeschooling and work. An increasingly tech-savvy population of minors, combined with millions of students engaged in remote learning, has created more opportunities for children to be exploited.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), reported that 2020 was a record-breaking year, with more than 21.7 million reports of suspected child sexual exploitation made to their CyberTipline, the highest number of reports ever received in one year. And there was a disturbing increase specifically in online enticement reports, up 97.5% compared to the year prior. Online enticement is when an individual communicates with someone believed to be a child via the internet with the intent to commit a sexual offense or abduction.
The data makes it clear that human trafficking, in the form of online child sexual exploitation, has only increased as a threat during this time of social isolation.
Human traffickers are always on the lookout for their next victim, and the internet and social media bring that search right to their fingertips. Traffickers can reach out to children on any application that allows for direct messaging, including apps like TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, SnapChat, Twitter, Roblox, and Fortnite. Parents should assume that any online platform where children are interacting with their peers—even gaming communities—will be exploited by traffickers.
According to a study by the University of Toledo, traffickers are particularly drawn to children who post expressions of fear, emptiness, and disappointment, such as “Nobody gets me,” “My life sucks,” “I need to get out of here,” etc. They look for children who seem vulnerable.
Now more than ever, because ongoing school closures and lockdowns have led to prolonged social isolation, children increasingly display vulnerable characteristics. They struggle with loneliness and long for friendship and connection that they can’t find in person anymore, so they turn to online gaming communities or social media platforms for that social interaction.
These virtual platforms offer traffickers immediate access to a wealth of information about children. They can see what a child has posted online to reveal their vulnerabilities, where they like to hang out, and what their interests are. Traffickers do their research and contact their victim all while protecting their own identities.
This increased threat of trafficking during COVID-19 calls upon parents and educators to be aware to protect their children.
The most important action schools can take to protect students is by offering prevention education. Children need to be educated on the kinds of threats traffickers pose and how they do so.
Many schools had adopted and implemented prevention curriculums prior to COVID-19, but with the shift to virtual learning, they have gone by the wayside. School systems need to immediately adapt their prevention curriculums to provide them virtually since the need for this training is greater than ever.
Anti-Trafficking International (ATI) has developed a robust prevention curriculum that equips schools and teachers to educate students on all stages of trafficking and provide them with information they can apply to safeguard themselves and their peers. The curriculum includes descriptions of how predators use the internet to exploit young people; common techniques and lures used by the internet exploiters; and strategies for protecting personal information and seeking adult support in uncomfortable situations.
No one is closer to the frontlines of preventing human trafficking than parents. Experts say there are two important things parents can do to protect their children from the dangers online: pay attention to their internet habits, and teach them how to surf the web carefully. Parents should always keep their child’s computer or tablet in a common area when they do their online work. By having open and transparent conversations with children early and often about technology and how to use it safely, parents help arm their children against online threats. For this purpose, ATI created a dedicated parent resource center, where parents can find the tools and support they need to help them train their children.
Among its many social harms, COVID-19 has brought about a marked increase in the online sexual exploitation of children. Schools, teachers, and parents, must prioritize educating children in the midst of their virtual learning with the information necessary to prevent them from falling prey to the many human traffickers lurking online. And the sooner schools reopen, the better for our children.