As we enter 2020, we hurtle forward into the vast and ever-changing digital world. The internet has become essential to daily life and nearly 60% of the entire world population is online. Our kids face digital safety issues at home and at school. Their screen time is fraught with risk in an ever-changing digital culture, and this online space has become a new entryway into human trafficking and sexual exploitation.
*WARNING: there are links to articles within this post which contain crude and disturbing references related to grooming tactics of sex predators
If you haven’t already seen the story about a 37-year-old mom who spent a week posing as an 11 year old girl online, it demonstrates why we should be doing everything in our power to protect our kids online. Sloane Ryan runs the Special Teams Projects at Bark, a digital monitoring tool. She went undercover online, posing as 11-year-old Bailey on Instagram. In just one week, 52 men reached out to this preteen girl. Ryan states the raw truth: “The brutal reality is that a predator doesn’t have to be in the same room, building, or even country to abuse a child.” As illustrated by the experience of “Bailey,” 90% of children ages 8-16 have seen online pornography. And seventy percent of children ages 7-18 have accidentally encountered online pornography, often while doing homework.
82% of child sex crimes originate from online social media sites.
Meanwhile, the prevalence of human trafficking recruitment and sex crimes arising from social media platforms is rampant. An appalling 82% of child sex crimes originate from online social media sites. A sex predator or trafficker often begins a relationship with potential victims through social media by commenting on their posts and sending direct messages. The FBI reports a 2000% increase in child pornography images online as of 1996, with 20,000 new images of child pornography being posted weekly.
The United States remains one of the largest producers and consumers of child abuse content in the world. In 2018, tech companies in the USA reported over 40 million files of abuse to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The stark demand to abuse children and profit from the abuse of cannot be ignored. As our children become teens and become more independent and mobile, the dangers grow. A survey of survivors by Polaris reported that 26% of their traffickers used the victims’ own social media accounts to exploit them.
So what can we do to keep our children safe?
Talk to Your Kids
A proactive and healthy place to start is by having age-appropriate conversations with your children about the dangers online, and the need to use different tools and methods to keep them safe. Having an understanding of why you are imposing restrictions on their devices will help them have a more supportive attitude rather than a rebellious one. Role-play different situations in which your child may need to say “no thanks” to friends and family when they are invited to surf the web or engage in social media outside of your family’s home and devices. Sign a family technology contract to keep everyone accountable to safe practices online.
Choose Your Safety Tools
Hashtag Parenting is a great place to get started with a focused collection of up to date resources on the changing digital landscape. This site is a wealth of information put together by social media professional, Suzanne Kosmerl, and clinical social worker and child advocate, Cheryl Kosmerl. This site and its Facebook group exist so you can learn about parental control tools for managing devices, apps, and computers. Get advice on talking to your kids about pressures at school, sexting, and developing healthy habits online. They also provide a family technology contract.
You can also consider specific digital management tools, such as BARK, which monitors children’s internet usage as well as searches through their texts and social media accounts for key words that are of concern. Anti-porn software such as Covenant Eyes may be helpful, as well.
Create Practical Digital Habits
Choose a common area of your home to keep and/or use the computer to prevent web searches from happening in private. Keep an up to date list of all device passwords, and practice a strict no-device policy if your children change the passwords without your consent. Consider only allowing your children to use social media that you understand and for which you have a personal account so that you can follow or friend your child to keep them accountable to safe practices.
Limiting time spent on technology is also an important practice. Home devices such as Circle can track and turn off wi-fi during certain times of the day, like right before bed. This device gives parents some intentional control and does the enforcement of the rules, too.
Get the Most Out of the Internet and Social Media
Though the risks online are real, so are the benefits of using the web and social media for learning and for good purposes. National speaker, Josh Ochs teaches teens to use social media to their advantage. His book Light, Bright & Polite focuses on best social media posts and strategies to impress colleges and future employers. The book also discusses common social media mistakes and tips on how to talk to your kids and make a plan. Check out these inspirational stories of teens who are making positive change in the world and using social media tools to do it!
It’s been said that “'Ignorance is bliss,” and Francis Bacon declared, “Knowledge is power.” And while it’s tempting to ignore the realities of the digital world, the knowledge that you have as a parent to understand it are powerful, too. And as we are seeing in increasing measure, the cost of ignorance may be incredibly high for our children.
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To learn the facts, discover real stories, and make an impact in counter-human trafficking, we encourage you to start the TraffickWatch Experience. This program is offered for free online, and takes around 10 - 15 minutes to completely experience all the content. You can also sign up here to receive monthly TraffickWatch emails which will be full of practical action steps and curated resources that will help you fight human trafficking.