What parents should know about online ‘sexploitation’

Crime

FILE – In this Aug. 11, 2019, file photo, a man uses a cell phone in New Orleans. Voters across the U.S. received anonymous robocalls in the days and weeks before Election Day urging them to “stay safe and stay home” — an ominous warning that election experts said could be an effort to scare voters into sitting out the election. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane, File)

(NewsNation) — It takes less than 17 minutes to entice a child or teenager to send an explicit picture online, according to Jan Edwards, who trains kids and parents on human trafficking.

Modern sexual exploitation is often more nefarious and nuanced than the stereotype of “trafficking.”

It includes forcing or coercing kids into sexual acts, whether that’s online photos or meeting up with someone in the real world. It can also include blackmailing someone for money after they’ve sent an explicit photo.

And the results can be dire. 

That’s why Edwards, who founded the Paving the Way Foundation, spends her days teaching kids, middle schoolers, teens and parents how to identify exploitation — and what to do if it happens.

“(During the pandemic), our children became even more isolated and even more alone, and even more separated, not only from their daily lives but from life in general,” she said. “And where did they go? Well, they went online. And that’s where the predators went as well.”

NewsNation spoke with Edwards about what parents should know about human trafficking and “sexploitation.” On the National Day of Human Trafficking Awareness, here’s how to keep kids safe.

It’s a ‘right here’ problem

With more kids on the web, reports of online child sexual exploitation increased by more than 50% from 2019 to 2021.

“Every child is dealing with this, and they’re dealing with it alone because we’re afraid to talk about it,” Edwards said. “People think it’s an ‘over there’ phenomenon … that (it) could never happen here — having no idea that the average age targeted online is 10 to 13.” 

What often happens is an adult will pretend to be another kid or teen, reaching out to as many as 100 kids per day. 

They initiate by sending an explicit picture, with the implication of “I sent you mine, now send me yours,” Edwards said. That’s followed by escalations such as demanding more photos and money or trying to set up an in-person meetup.

“These predators are master manipulators,” she said. “And they make our kids feel like it’s their fault.”

What signs to look for

Teens in distress will often act out, and it can be hard for parents to distinguish the cause.

But there are a few red flags to look for: 

  • Major, sudden personality changes, like a social kid spending all their time in their room 
  • Changes in school work, like failing grades or falling asleep in class 
  • Appearance of expensive, new gifts, like an iPhone or designer clothes

Boys are at risk just the same as girls are, and some traffickers target boys because of the stigma and shame attached to reporting, Edwards said, in some cases leading to suicide.

How to respond

Parents may feel nervous about talking to their kids about exploitation online, but a lot of harm can be prevented if kids are aware of the danger. 

One way parents can engage kids is to ask them when it’s a good idea to block an account or how to spot a scammer. That helps kids feel more comfortable and lets kids know they can talk to you if something happens.

And if parents do notice odd behavior, it’s important to address the situation quickly and nonjudgmentally.

“In that moment, the very next words you say, you’re going to make or break that child,” Edwards said. “(Ask) ‘Hey, what’s going on? What’s happening? This isn’t normal behavior for you. … Whatever you’ve done, it’s OK.’”

One approach you can teach your kids is the “stop, block, talk” method to deal with potential trafficking or exploitation.

Stop: The moment someone asks for an inappropriate picture or makes you feel uncomfortable, stop talking to them completely. Don’t delete or hide anything, even if it’s embarrassing. 

Block: Block the person from talking to you on social media, because they may try to threaten you to get you to send pictures or money. 

Talk: Find an adult to help, like a trusted parent or teacher. They should call 911 immediately to report the incident. Many states also have human trafficking task forces you can follow up with. 

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