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Covid Raises the Risk of Sex Trafficking

Social isolation means increased vulnerability to online recruiting.

Key points

  • A lonely youngster may look for emotional support online, where predators are waiting to exploit them.
  • A youngster’s new internet "friend" may be a predator who is simultaneously grooming a hundred other children.
  • Parents and other adults need to be aware of and pay more attention to the risks of online exploitation of children.

The Covid-19 pandemic has made much of life more challenging for many. One of them is Stacey Williams, director for human trafficking prevention at Global Communities. From the organization’s West Coast headquarters in San Diego, Williams is working to reduce the risk that Southern California students will wind up being trafficked.

“We think our own children are immune to being trafficked, and it’s only other kids who are potential victims,” Williams says. “Covid has meant social isolation, and when you add to this the normal emotional ups and downs that kids experience anyway, the result has meant an increase in anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and vulnerability.”

Random Strangers on Internet

Williams remembers how things were different when she was growing up. “When I was younger and got into a family argument, I would bike over to a friend’s house and get emotional support. Today, a young person needing emotional support may instead connect with and make friends with random strangers online or through social media.”

The problem is the “random strangers” may be grooming the young person for sex trafficking. A “random stranger” may be working 100 or more similar cases, and some of the young people are likely to succumb to the trafficker’s finely honed recruitment playbook.

United States Youngsters Vulnerable

Before moving to San Diego, Williams lived in Kosovo, Macedonia, and Kenya, battling human trafficking there. However, she feels that the problem in the United States is equally bad, if not worse, as unceasing demand is a driving factor in the growth of human trafficking.

“Seeing and experiencing how human trafficking operates in the United States is more alarming than in other parts of the world,” Williams says, “and the reason is, people don’t realize it exists in their own backyards. We can’t afford to not be paying attention anymore. We can’t be sleepwalking. We can’t be burying our heads in the sand.”

Used with Permission, Global Communities
Source: Used with Permission, Global Communities

Education Helps Prevent Trafficking

Williams’ organization, Global Communities, and partner organizations work to educate children and their parents. Sessions often focus on online grooming, with the goal of interrupting the communication and recruitment cycle that often happens on social media and in digital spaces.

Many parents are not aware of the extent to which would-be traffickers utilize the online space. By shining a light on the new digital language of trafficking, Williams and others help parents and educators be attuned to warning signs they might otherwise miss.

Traffickers Communicate with Emojis

Emojis, for example, are highly popular types of digital communication, especially among young people. Their popularity makes them exploitable by sex buyers. Human sex trafficking language could include the use of emojis as shorthand or code, and a string of images in the right order could indicate that a buyer is, for example, “willing to pay money (rose emoji) to record having sex (camcorder emoji) with an underage person (growing heart emoji) who is being trafficked by a handler (crown emoji).

It is important for caregivers and teachers to know that many of these emojis are used in everyday teen conversations—but they are used as well by those who seek to exploit teens. Awareness is important, and it is wise for parents and educators to have regular check-in conversations with kids about their online presence. Learning and understanding the social media landscape where they live and communicate is also an important prevention tool.

In addition to developing dedicated school programs, Global Communities and their partners work closely with marginalized communities, including refugee and immigrant communities. Children in immigrant communities can become particularly vulnerable to trafficking when their efforts to assimilate create conflict at home, as they work through other financial and cultural barriers, as well as when they are trying to assimilate in their new communities.

Williams wants everyone to know who to contact if they or someone they know is at risk of being trafficked. Two resources she recommends are:

  • National Human Trafficking hotline 1-888-373-7888
  • Global Communities for more information about their Human Trafficking programs

Williams’ final thoughts are, “This is our collective responsibility. Talk with your children openly, share with your friends, ask if your local school is providing human trafficking education, and support victims’ service organizations.”


Emojis and Trafficking

San Diego Trafficking Prevention Collective