As parents and caregivers, we are focused on protecting our children from physical and emotional harm. As our children age and exercise their independence in expanded spheres, it’s much more challenging to offer that protection, especially in light of all the new technological advances rapidly being integrated into everyday life.
Today, we must consider new realities that could harm our children, including human trafficking. Read on to learn more about this industry and how to prevent your child from becoming a victim.
Do we live in a world where today’s children are at risk for becoming victims of human trafficking? Unfortunately, this is a real concern in today’s society. Many people think children who are trafficked come from different countries, are runaways or are drug-addicted teens.
Actually, every child is potentially at risk to become a victim of human trafficking. It is currently estimated there are 30 million enslaved victims in trafficking worldwide, more than at any time in human history. Human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal enterprise, with nearly a $32 billion annual revenue, compared to Starbucks with $19 billion. One victim can make an annual income of approximately $300,000, making traffickers highly motivated to recruit new victims.
The average age for new victims is 12 to 14 years old. Sometimes traffickers use force, coercion, threats or violence to get their victims to comply. Other traffickers seemingly fill a need for family, attention, love and material things such as food and clothing.
Possible risk factors for human trafficking include:
* Feelings of isolation, lack of social support, family dysfunction.
* Substance abuse, mental illness.
* Learning disabilities or developmental delays.
* A history of childhood sexual abuse.
* Experiencing cyberbullying.
Of course, having one of these factors does not usually increase your child’s risk significantly, but the more risk factors, the greater the risk.
Social Media and How Kids Think
Traffickers are moving their business from the street to the smartphone, using social media to recruit teens and online avenues to connect their victims with potential buyers.
While social media can be a useful tool for connecting people and maintaining friendships, it can take advantage of a teen’s youth, inexperience and developmental thinking abilities to potentially put a child in dangerous situations.
In the early teen years, brain (or cognitive) development is at a more abstract level, called formal operations. Before this happens, children are very literal (or concrete) thinkers. They take things at face value. For example, if they meet someone on social media who says he is a 14-year-old boy in their community, they believe it. As formal operations develop, they learn not to take everything at face value and to appraise each situation critically.
Developing abstract thinking doesn’t happen at the same exact time for everyone but will generally begin around age 12 and progress until the late teens and early 20s. Having the ability to think abstractly is an important social media skill and could make the difference in protecting your child from being susceptible to human trafficking or other social media schemes.
How do you know your child is reaching the formal operations stage, and how do you have confidence in your child’s ability to function more independently? Ask yourself these questions:
1) Does my child consider new possibilities or explore new ways of doing things?
2) Does my child form new ideas or ask questions about beliefs or rules in our family?
3) Does my child consider many points of view and the feelings of others when thinking about a situation?
4) Does my child share this thought process aloud when making decisions?
5) Does my child ask questions about global concepts such as justice, history and politics?
6) Does my child talk about long-term plans and goals?
If the answer to most of these questions is yes, it is likely your child is maturing into the formal operations stage.
Spotting Red Flags
Although it is scary to think about your children or someone in their circle of friends being caught up in human trafficking, there are some signs that should cause concern.
* Tattoos, especially barcodes, dollar signs, horseshoes and the word Daddy.
* Having an extra cell phone given “by a friend.”
* Bruises or other injuries without a good explanation of what happened.
* Coming home with expensive gifts from unnamed or mysterious friends.
* Absences from home or school with vague explanations.
* Fearful, anxious, irritable, paranoid, depressed behaviors.
* Frequently running away from home.
* A sudden change in appearance, personality and relationships.
* A boyfriend or girlfriend who is noticeably older and appears controlling.
There are ways to be a proactive parent or caregiver to protect children from being vulnerable to becoming a victim of trafficking.
* Don’t be naive, and think “my child would never do that.”
* Communicate positive and affirmative messages acknowledging strengths and affirming self-worth. Establish an open relationship where your children can come to you freely with any concerns.
* Know your kids’ social circle — there friends, their friends’ parents and other adults with whom they spend time.
* Minors using social media should have an account set to “private.”
* Profile pictures for social media should be stock or generic photos.
* Disable geotagging or location finding from photos your kids upload to social media.
* Monitor online social media and gaming activity and discuss promptly in a non-accusatory way any concerns that arise.
* Advise your children to never friend anyone they don’t actually know personally and to never agree to meet a stranger from social media for any reason.
* Teach internet etiquette, including never sharing personal information with a stranger and never posting person information such as school name or birthdate online.
* Talk to your teens about sexting. Tell them to never share inappropriate images with anyone else and that they should tell you as soon as possible if they receive any requests for such images or receive an inappropriate image someone has shared with them. Any images sent to your child should be evaluated for the need to inform legal authorities or be deleted immediately. Check the laws in your state, as some label this a misdemeanor and some a felony.
To Learn More
* Don’t be afraid to talk to your pediatric healthcare provider or seek counseling if you see any sudden change or concerning behaviors.
* CommonSenseMedia.org has a handbook online to help you know how to talk to your child about sexting and what to do if it happens. Any child with a smartphone should be educated and equipped on this topic.
* Visit polarisproject.org for more statistics and information on trafficking.
* If you suspect your child or someone you know may be a potential victim of human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 888-373-7888.
Information about human trafficking can be scary and make you feel more protective and restrictive as a parent, but the good news is that knowledge is power. Educating and equipping your kids to make smart, safe and informed decisions will help them to become more confident, healthy and safe adults.
Jessica L. Peck, DNP, RN, MSN, CPNP-PC, CNE, CNL, is a mother of four and a PNP. She is currently the chair of the Alliance for Care Coordination of Children in Human Trafficking for the National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners.