“My 11-year-old daughter was targeted by a predator for human trafficking on Roblox.”

“We almost lost a child last week, and it happened in a matter of 12 hours. She was targeted by a predator through Instagram.”

“Ours was groomed and being sex trafficked. I discovered it hours before she was leaving.”

I read these comments, and more, on a social media thread for parents. Many moms, teachers and students have told me of online scams, sextortion accounts and grooming for human trafficking. Each occurrence breaks my heart more.

We can dismiss these incidents, claiming that those girls came from a broken home and have parents who aren’t aware of online dangers. However, predators aren’t picky. They target any child. Even sweet, innocent, smart Christian girls who love the Lord get pulled in.

A clinician who works with sex trafficking survivors told me, “It’s not about how gullible a person is or how vulnerable they are. It’s more about how good the perpetrators are at manipulating. They are strategic.”

Traffickers are excellent at their jobs. They’re experts, and now more than ever, they have tools available to help them with their objective. For example, recent AI capabilities can make anyone appear younger, which makes it difficult to distinguish whether someone is actually who they appear to be.

I taught my children right from wrong, read the Bible to them, homeschooled them, and took them to Sunday school and church services every week. All of my children followed Christ and got baptized at a young age. Yet, my son fell victim to pornography’s lure.

The grooming process for human trafficking

Grooming is a tactic where someone methodically builds a trusting relationship with a child or young adult, their family and community to manipulate, coerce or force the child or young adult to engage in sexual activities.”

Predators are subtle, manipulative and secretive, so they are not easily identifiable. They groom victims either in person or online. Online predators typically befriend a child and start chatting with them through an online app like Snapchat, Discord, Instagram or TikTok. (This is a sample, not an exclusive list.)

At first, they appear friendly and helpful. As they interact with their target, they pinpoint vulnerabilities and use these weaknesses to gain trust, meet a need and isolate them.

Then they begin the abuse.

Another tactic is to convince a target to send a nude photo or video. Next, they use the images to sextortthe victim, stating that they will AirDrop the videos to the school or send them to family unless the victim has sex with a “friend.”

Often, girls believe they are doing their “boyfriend” a favour because he needs money. They don’t realize they are being trafficked.

Vulnerabilities

Human trafficking is occurring in every type of community, affluent and impoverished. Also, victims can be any age, race, gender or nationality. Certain individuals are more susceptible due to factors like parental involvement or peer influence or personality type; however, we need to be careful not to believe that only certain groups fall prey to human traffickers.

What factors make a child more vulnerable to predators or other unhealthy online behaviours?

A developing brain. Teen brains are under construction. From age twelve until mid-twenties, a person is less apt to think long-term and more likely to allow the portion of the brain that likes pleasure and wants to take risks to control decisions. Therefore, teens are more inclined to talk with tricky people through personal messages on social media.

Emotional instability. Most preteens and teens feel insecure and inadequate periodically. They also face loneliness and a sense of doom. Watch for long periods of anxiousness, sadness or depression, without happy times between.

Boredom. Youth need to learn that being bored is okay. Our minds don’t need to be entertained or occupied every minute of every day. They may need a parent to come alongside them and help them adopt margin and relaxation periods into their lives.

Environment or circumstances. Certain races are more vulnerable. Those living in poverty are more vulnerable. Also, distressing events like a divorce, an accident or a death in the family make preteens and teens more vulnerable. Some children are less resilient than others, and their reactions to traumas shape their self-image and responses to tricky people.

Peer pressure. God designed us with an innate desire to belong, and we will go to great lengths to fulfil that need. The next generation is trying to figure out who they are. Girls especially want to fit in and be liked, so they are more prone to emotional manipulation. We can’t underestimate the power of peer pressure.

What can parents do?

Short of unplugging the Wi-Fi, hanging up on the data plan and throwing computers in the garbage, what can parents do to protect their children from falling victim to online dangers like watching pornography, sending nudes, sextortion and human trafficking?

Here are some helpful guidelines.

  • Pray. I know it sounds cliché, but a huge part of parenting is praying for God’s guidance. Before acting, press pause and pray.

  • Be aware. Educate yourself and your children on the pros and cons of each device and app available. Thoroughly understand the purpose and how it’s being misused before allowing your child access. Keep in mind that predators exist on every social media platform and app. If a device connects to the internet, a child is at risk of exposure to bullying, pornography and cynical beliefs.

  • Use filters and set tech boundaries. Each household needs a Wi-Fi filter like Bark or a router that filters such as Gryphon, as well as a device filter, like Covenant Eyes or Canopy. While filters won’t eliminate all inappropriate material or stop every conversation with tricky people, they will prevent a certain amount of activity and keep our children from accidental exposure to pornography. Use parental controls for each app and keep social media profiles on private. Also, establish family rules and boundaries, like screen time limits, only allowing devices in public spaces, and turning off the Wi-Fi at night.

  • Meet basic human needs. Our children need food, shelter and clothing. They also need to feel loved, validated, safe and included. Provide a home in which they feel protected and loved even when they fall short of your expectations. Value their opinion. Invite them to your discussions. Be available. When their decisions are unhealthy or dangerous, walk with them through the consequences without blaming or shaming. Lead them to repentance and God’s forgiveness.

  • Communicate. Don’t be afraid of difficult conversations. Even when the subject matter is awkward, it’s best for our children to hear about sextortion, pornography, sex and the dangers of human trafficking from us. Regularly discussing these topics helps our kids feel comfortable asking us for help when they encounter a problem or make a poor choice.

Our children, especially our daughters, face a significant amount of pressure every day. When we understand their daily burdens and realize they are being targeted, we are better equipped to help them. Let’s not dismiss their fears and issues. We can’t cower either. Instead, let’s walk with them, guiding and directing. Let’s be available to soothe their emotions and offer them advice.

Remind your daughter today of her value and worth. Pick her up when she falls into a trap. Empower her to say no to harmful people and trust those who have her best interest in mind.

Barb Winters is the author of Sexpectations: Helping the Next Generation Navigate Healthy Relationships. She is the mom of a recovered pornography addict, speaker, certified Sexual Risk Avoidance Specialist, and founder of Hopeful Mom: supporting parents in an online world, where she offers encouragement and practical advice to parents and leaders. Connect with Barb at Hopeful Mom.

© 2023 Barbara Winters. Used with permission.

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