A man begins privately messaging a young girl on social media. He is not who he says he is. He observes and interacts with her online activities. He knows the right things to say to make her feel mature and adored. He gains her trust. He knows how to manipulate and control her. She feels loved. She feels like she belongs. She feels like she can rely on him. He knows he can exploit her. She wants to meet him in person. He forces her to do things that physically and emotionally harm her. She is terrified. He keeps all the money.
Mainstream social media platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, and Tik Tok are among the most common channels Traffickers use to lure, groom, and exploit their Victims. This is the grim reality of Sex Trafficking in our society that comes as a surprise to many. Young girls, using social media to post photos of themselves and communicate with their peers, do not expect to be preyed on in this way. Many people who use social media are liberal with the personal information and photos that they share, assuming that this will not be used against them. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The Traffickers who use this method to recruit girls will monitor the online activity of their target closely, finding out exactly what to say to prey on their insecurities and manipulate them. They will often form an online relationship with their target, convincing her that their relationship is built on an honest foundation. The Victim does not expect this person to turn on her, and she is blindsided when he does. Once the Trafficker gains control over their victim and coerces them into engaging in sexually exploitive activities, stopping this from going further becomes increasingly difficult.
Parents and teachers are usually entirely unaware of the very serious risks associated with young people using these platforms. They have not yet been given the resources that are needed to ensure that this does not happen. Having an online presence has been a crucial tool for socialization over the last two years, during the Pandemic. With this kind of use so normalized in our culture, it seems unreasonable to tell a young person to stay off these platforms. This is even more difficult to restrict now that many mainstream social platforms cater to young people, encouraging this type of use.
Prevention is key. To prevent this from happening, parents, guardians, and teachers must learn to have discussions with young people about navigating online spaces. There are ways to safely use social media platforms. They involve talking about the potential dangers and knowing how to recognize luring and grooming when it is happening. Young people must also be made aware of the risks of social media use by becoming informed how to recognize a predator, what it means to provide consent, and keeping appropriate privacy and security settings.