The internet is a wealth of information, but it is also a place where danger is just one click away.
Today, most teens – and now many children – have access to a smartphone or a computer, however, many parents are still unaware of the risks this kind of connectivity poses.
Pew Research Center reports that 45 percent of teens are online almost constantly via phone, computer or gaming device. With this type of access, social media is increasingly being exploited to contact, recruit and sell children for sex according to the University of Toledo Human Trafficking and Social Justice Institute.
Does it scare you? If not, it should. If your child has a device, they are at risk. With a simple click, they have the ability to connect with strangers anywhere in the world. As parents we need to step up our game to stay ahead of sneaky teens and potential pedophiles. We must be consistent and vigilant about keeping them safe.
If I sound a little impassioned about this topic, you’re correct. I’ve had my eyes opened to this horrendous crime (#2 in the U.S.) against our youth. I’ve interviewed victims of sex trafficking, nonprofits that aid trafficking victims, attended seminars on the topic, and spent countless hours researching this crime. As a result, I have made a commitment to myself to spread the word through my writing.
What I’ve learned is, as parents it’s better to be informed and educated so we can advocate for the safety of our children and the safety of others. Don’t be naïve and think it can’t happen in Collin or Dallas County. It already has.
Take these steps to help protect your child from being a potential victim.
• Monitor your child’s online account and friends. Don’t allow unlimited access to TV, internet and smart devices (phones, laptops, tablets, gaming systems), follow them on social media and take steps to password protect their settings and restrict their ability to download apps without consent. If they are under 18, use parental controls and filtering programs such as TeenSafe, X3Watch, or CovenantEyes. Keep your child’s phone or computer out of their bedroom and locked away at night.
“Know what your kids are doing, who they are seeing and where they are going on the internet,” says Vicki Latham, Director of Communication and Development of 4theone.org, a Carrollton nonprofit that helps locate missing teens. “Get their passwords and login information on all devices. Activate the GPS location trackers on their phones.”
• Talk to your kids about trafficking. Because children are so trusting, they are easy prey for traffickers. Studies show the average age a child is recruited is 12 or 13 years old for a girl, 14-15 for a boy. “Have a discussion about the dangers of social media and manipulative people, who sometimes look totally cute and cool on the outside, but they do not have their best interest at heart,” says Latham.
• Educate your child about sex abuse prevention. “1 in 4 girls is sexually abused before age 18 and 90 percent of the time it is someone they know well and trust such as a cousin, uncle, boyfriend, brother or father,” reports Rebecca Jowers, founder of Rockwall-based Poiema, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness of human trafficking. Look for ways to meet your child’s friends, their friends’ parents and those they hang out with. Don’t let your child go to a sleepover at someone’s house who you don’t know really well.
• Make them feel safe and secure at home. If teens are from a loving, caring home the risks are far lower.” It’s the vulnerability factors that put the person at risk,” reports Jowers. Factors such as age, history of abuse, divorce, death, parents doing drugs, kids in foster care, etc. can all make a child more vulnerable.
• Prevention education is key. Human trafficking training for educators in Texas is not mandated nor is it a required topic for students. Much like bullying and drug awareness, this is a topic that MUST be covered. Ask your child’s school, youth organization or church to offer awareness and prevention programming to students, parents and school staff. Nonprofits Traffick911 and Poiema not only aid victims of trafficking, they work to raise awareness through prevention education. Traffick911 hosts a class called Traps, an interactive youth program designed to equip youth (ages 12-18) to avoid the tricks, traps and lures of human traffickers. Poiema offers a class called Human Trafficking (HT) 101 that educates people how to report suspicious activity, how perpetrators recruit children, how to identify human trafficking victims, how to talk to children about sex and human trafficking and sex abuse prevention and education.
The time is now to be proactive about protecting our children about this form of modern day slavery. Don’t wait until it’s too late.
By Sonia Duggan • [email protected]