July 2020 – “It used to be that if you locked your doors when you went to bed, you knew your kids would be safe for the night,” said Kelly McCaughey. “But now, technology has made it possible for sex traffickers and online predators to be communicating with children from behind safely locked doors.”
McCaughey is volunteer and community engagement manager for Shared Hope International (SHI), a leading anti-human trafficking organization. She sat down with AFA Journal to expose the startling link between sex traffickers and children playing online. Fortunately, she also offers tools and advice on how to keep children safe from online threats.
Thanks to technology, people can shop, chat, play games, and connect with friends at the click of a button. With that button in hand, social media users are afforded much greater power to communicate with others than the world has ever known.
But the Bible warns in Luke 12:48, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”
Or, according to the Spider-Man philosophy, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Rightly used, the Internet can be a valuable tool to research, explore foreign lands, or stay in contact with loved ones. Wrongly used, it can lead to destruction that devastates an innocent child and an entire family.
As online activity increases daily, it is critical that parents understand the dangers hidden within the World Wide Web. They should be cautious never to blindly trust any app, website, or game their child accesses. Parents need to know every site their child visits as well as the child knows it.
Human trafficking has become so great a crisis that President Donald Trump officially proclaimed January 2020 National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month.
“By some estimates,” the president said, “as many as 24.9 million people – adults and children – are trapped in a form of modern slavery around the world, including in the United States.” Mr. President is correct. Trafficking is a terrible worldwide crime. But many fail to recognize that even in the U.S., children are victimized daily.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 750,000 online predators are active worldwide at any given moment. SHI’s National Report on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking shows that in a recent two-year period, there was an 800% increase in reports of child victims of sex trafficking exploited with the aid of technology.
Today’s predator does not have to recruit or kidnap children on street corners. It’s as simple as browsing for victims online. Once he finds a child he likes, he will begin to engage him or her in an “innocent” online conversation with the goal of leading the child into the world of trafficking.
Predators are aware of what apps are popular with young children and teens, at what times they are more likely to be online, and ways they can connect with them. These dangerous men and women may lure children through seemingly harmless apps such as Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, and Kik.
These apps and other online chatting avenues can become gateways for predators to spot, groom, and traffic their victims.
“Predators lure child victims via tablet, phone, even video game consoles,” explained McCaughey. “In these online venues, children are being enticed, entrapped, and sold for sex. Technology, including social media and classified websites, is widely viewed as responsible for the explosion of sex trafficking in the United States.”
As a predator develops a “friendship” with his intended victim, he may lead the child into explicit sexual conversation, ask for lewd pictures of the child, and persuade the child to meet him in person.
“It is important to understand that where children play, predators prey,” McCaughey stressed. “Unfortunately, this [emerging] ‘friendship’ is when the predator typically uses the lewd images of the child or the secret they exchanged as leverage to make the youth do whatever the predator wants,” McCaughey informed.
Blind trust in anything is a dangerous thing. Realizing that predators are looming is the first step in protecting children. The second is to teach children that there are dangers. Third, perhaps the most important, is finding ways to prevent vulnerable children from ever becoming victims.
In the big picture, SHI is devoted to helping prevent child sex trafficking, rescue and restore victims, and bring justice in domestic cases of human trafficking.
In today’s cultural climate, the challenge grows increasingly harder, but it is not impossible to beat the darkness. “The more people who know, the smaller the world becomes for those who buy and sell children,” said Linda Smith, founder of SHI. In her book Invading the Darkness, the former congresswoman shares her heartrending story of how she discovered the enormity of U.S. child trafficking. (See related article in AFA Journal, 1-2/20.)
“We started Shared Hope’s Internet safety initiative to equip parents and caretakers on how to empower the kids in their life to make safe choices on the Internet,” McCaughey said. She narrates SHI’s informative Internet Safety Video series to help parents stay informed on ever-changing lingo and new dangers that appear online.
“I walk parents through topics such as using parental control options built right into kids’ devices,” she explained. “I also team up with a teenager to talk about how to have the ‘sexting’ conversation with middle or high school students.”
Other SHI educational resources include Chosen, a film series to alert teens to the dangers they face; it features teen trafficking victims. Another training guide and video series aids public and private agencies and groups that may encounter child victims. The Faith in Action Kit is designed to equip church leaders with tools to raise awareness in their communities. Print resources include titles such as 10 Ways to Take Action and Warning Signs of Sex Trafficking.
Since 1998, SHI has been researching and providing resources to help adults protect children before they fall captive to this heinous crime. With the tools that are available, there is hope for a brighter, safer future for America’s children.
SHI’s Kelly McCaughey suggested, “There are online safety services that vary in terms of privacy and evasiveness, creating the ability to give children and teens their space without completely taking off the guardrails.” She recommended the following:
1. “Stranger danger” still applies to the Internet. It is important for parents to monitor who their children are talking to online.
2. Talk to kids about the dangers they could face. By maintaining constant communication, children are more likely to talk with a parent if they come in contact with something suspicious.
3. Look into parental control options. Safeguards are available through cellular providers as a part of monthly packages and downloadable apps.
4. Check out free Internet safety material at sharedhope.org or call 866.437.5433.
For still more resources to combat child sex trafficking, visit National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) at endsexualexploitation.org or call 202.393.7245. NCOSE has extensive resources to fight all forms of sexual exploitation.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children offers insight, data, and multiple resources addressing similar issues. Visit the center at missingkids.org or call the 24-hour hotline at 800.843.5678.