Children and teens across the country are starting to head back to school and embark on a new chapter in their lives. While some students return to familiar faces and spaces, others are given a fresh start, setting foot on an unfamiliar campus or in a new school district for the very first time.
Feelings of excitement, nervousness and even dread will accompany many students as they walk through the doors of their classrooms after a long summer break. Likewise, parents will approach the school year with similar emotions as they send their children off to meet new friends, achieve their goals and learn more about who they are as a person.
With back-to-school in motion, there are important and rarely talked about truths that parents and guardians, teachers and students should take into consideration. One unfortunate reality is that those returning to school are about to enter a season of vulnerability where they are introduced to new environments, new people and unfamiliar routines, with perhaps less supervision as they get older.
This makes it more important than ever that we are open and honest with our children about our concerns, to keep them safe and protected from potential predators, as we know that sexual exploitation is rampant, especially in this digital age. Our kids need to be equipped to recognize suspicious situations and individuals, and to be empowered to take action to protect themselves and their friends. Whether they are younger or older, it is never too late to start a conversation.
Explain the Process of "Grooming"
Predators today are more sophisticated and craftier than ever before, having figured out how to reach their targets with deception and persuasion, leaving them unaware of what’s really happening. “Grooming” is one of the most common ways those who would exploit our children approach them: showering children with gifts, giving compliments, keeping secrets, discussing sexual topics and isolating them both physically and emotionally. More importantly, the process of “grooming” can happen in person or online and by strangers or by individuals our kids knows personally. Therefore, it is extremely important to help children and teens understand these warning signs and behaviors, so that they can recognize if it is happening to themselves or a friend.
Encourage Safe Digital Habits
With over half a million active predators online every day, it has never been easier and more convenient for them to target our children. In fact, research shows that one in every nine children are approached by predators online via the internet and social media. Through different messaging platforms and apps, predators are given the opportunity to communicate and befriend their targets, which can be done through personal social media accounts or various fake online personas.
Predators are also creatures of manipulation and persuasion. They know how to influence the decisions and actions of their victims. Once a relationship is established, predators are more likely to convince their target to send nude images or even meet them in person. Because the digital space is so fun and inviting, it remains the number one platform predators use for recruiting their victims. Consider having conversations with your children about how to block an unfamiliar account on social media, how to respond when someone asks for nude images, as well as the dangers of using location services and geotags on their personal accounts.
Establish Rules and Boundaries
One of the easiest ways to safeguard children is to establish rules and boundaries. One thing to consider is setting parental controls on your child’s device. Whether done through an app or directly in the device settings, parental controls ensure that children are not exposed to inappropriate or harmful online content. In some cases, preventative measures such as these allow parents to monitor who their child is texting or communicating with online.
Depending on the situation, some parents may want to also consider implementing a curfew or talking with their children about sharing their location via location services. For our teens, party invitations need to be vetted carefully and they need to be made aware of the dangers of being out alone late at night. No matter the circumstances, it is important to help children understand that setting rules and boundaries is not meant to take away their freedom, but to help keep them safe.
A Personal Plea to Parents and Guardians
The reason all of this matters so much to me is because I have seen firsthand the very real danger of human trafficking that exists in our world today. If we don’t put these safeguards in place and have these difficult conversations with our children, as unbelievable as it may seem, in any zip code in America, sex trafficking is a real and present threat to our young people.
Currently, the worldwide estimate of human trafficking victims is 24.9 million. Of this number, 4.8 million account for the number of individuals forced into sex slavery. Another startling statistic is that two million children are taken into sex trafficking every year. These numbers should open our eyes to the truth that anyone could become a victim at any point in time.
While those who are trafficked could be of any age, economic status, nationality or gender, there are certain individuals whom traffickers are more likely to target. Research shows that the average age of children entering trafficking is 12 – 14, largely middle school years. At this age, teens are experiencing new freedoms for the first time, like owning a cell phone or walking home from school.
This new independence is compounded by the changes that children are going through as they begin puberty. Those between the ages of 11 and 13 are more likely to act out and rebel against their parents and authority figures, making them more likely to run away from home. Today, one in three children will be approached by a trafficker and solicited for sex within 48 hours of running away.
While predators do still approach their victims in person, technology and social media are the larger threat. Oftentimes, traffickers befriend and recruit their targets online, seeking to establish relationships that feel genuine and mutually beneficial. Over time, predators work to build trust between themselves and their victims by giving compliments, aligning interests and experiences and sending gifts. Such grooming is a popular strategy among traffickers.
The truth is traffickers are constantly lurking and looking for every opportunity to distract and manipulate their targets both online and in person. Therefore, it is essential to know the facts upfront—who the most vulnerable children are and what situations traffickers seek to take advantage of.
The truth of the matter is that human trafficking is the fastest-growing criminal industry in the world. It is a heinous and ruthless underground system that has claimed too many innocent and precious lives. I say all this not to scare you, but to make you aware of the reality that we are living in today. So, what can we do about this?
I want to urge parents and guardians, as well as teachers, to hear me loud and clear. Stay involved in your children’s lives. Ask questions, be present and stay engaged. Pay attention to the people they talk with online and who they hang around with inside and outside of the classroom.
As you send your children back to school and out into the world, make them aware of the dangers that exist around them. Educate them so that they are prepared for any situation they may find themselves in. Above all, help those in middle school and high school understand that with freedom comes responsibility. As stewards of our children, we have a duty to encourage, support and guide them so that they can make wise decisions as they experience life.