It is officially summer time, which means most children are out of school for the summer. For many families, this means kids have less supervision and are spending more unsupervised time on the internet. Here are some tips for keeping kids safe online. Parents should be aware of a significant online risk to children across the country: human trafficking.
Between 100,000 and 300,000 children are forced into sex trafficking every year in the United States. Sex trafficking victims span all socioeconomic backgrounds, putting all children at risk.
The internet and social media provide human traffickers a way to access and exploit children and teens. Traffickers use the internet to target children and teens and lure them into sex trafficking. Traffickers scout various internet platforms for victims, deliberately targeting victims who are susceptible to manipulation. Teens who seem depressed, lonely, or have low self-esteem are typically at the highest risk. Traffickers may stalk their social media profiles and appeal to the victim’s specific likes and needs. Similar to the grooming tactics used by domestic abusers, traffickers manipulate their victims through charm, false promises, or romance. Traffickers do this with the goal of meeting the victim in person and forcing or manipulating the victim into prostitution or bondage. But there are things that parents can do to keep kids safe online.
In January, a Louisiana teen found himself a victim of this precise scenario. The 17-year-old teen used an online gaming app called Discord, which allows users to communicate through a chat platform. A 34-year-old Florida man, Curtis Gruwell, met the teen in the chat group and earned his trust over time. Gruwell promised the teen a better life and drove to Louisiana to pick up the teen. The teen was then held hostage inside Gruwell’s mobile home for months, where he was repeatedly sexually abused by Gruwell and his friends. Law enforcement have also discovered traffickers using other online games, like Fortnite, to solicit pornographic photos from minors. Live chats associated with online gaming, social media sites, or other web platforms provide traffickers immediate access to kids and an avenue through which to exploit them.
There are a few things parents can do to keep kids safe online:
- Talk to your kids about internet safety. Make sure kids know not to share their personal information with strangers and know about the risks.
- Create age-appropriate filters that will block kids’ access to inappropriate websites. Also block kids’ access to peer-to-peer networks. These networks allow computer uses to swap files and access each other’s’ computers, bypassing filters and parental controls.
- Install monitoring software that records all internet activities, including sites visited and communication sent and received. These regular reports create accountability for kids’ online activity.
- Periodically check the computer’s browser history. Look both for inappropriate websites, as well as history that has been cleared.
- Limit unsupervised internet use at night and set a daily time limit for computer use.
- Talk to your kids about chat room or live chat etiquette or disallow chat access all together. Chat rooms, even those for teens, frequently contain explicit language and content. Live video chat associated with video games also provides easy access for predators.
- Monitor who kids communicate with on the internet, limiting the contact list to those who parents pre-approve. Make sure parental controls do not allow this list to be altered, and check the list regularly to ensure the parental controls have not been bypassed.
- Enable “Safe Search” on Google to limit the websites that kids can access through search engines.
- Monitor kids’ mobile phone usage, using parental controls to limit photo or video messaging, internet access, or other potentially dangerous features.
- Report any suspicious, predatory, or abusive online activity to the proper authorities.
Parents should be aware of warning signs that their children may be a victims of an online traffickers’ grooming tactics, such as teens who suddenly have new and/or older friends, stay out later than usual, have unexplained access to money, or isolate themselves from family activities.
If you think your child may be the victim of online predators or trafficking, contact law enforcement. For more about your legal rights in this area, contact Koller Trial Law.