Michigan dad Scott Jenkins didn’t think human trafficking was something he needed to worry about until his young daughter was almost lured into a sex trafficking ring. The source: what appeared to be a friendly message from a 15-year-old boy on Instagram.
Jenkins, a blogger, shared how his daughter’s innocent interaction with a young boy led to her photo being shared with potential abductors. Jenkins went to the police when he discovered that the boy was connected with a string of adult men scouting for girls to “meet up” with.
Fortunately for the Jenkins family, the outcome was positive, but this is not the case for many other victims. Teenage sex trafficking in America is an epidemic of incomprehensible proportions. It is estimated that up to 300,000 Americans under 18 are lured into the commercial sex trade every year, according to Ark of Hope for Children.
Reports of human trafficking in the U.S. are increasing every year. The majority of these victims are runaways or youths who live on the streets. Other young people are lured into prostitution through forced abduction or recruited into trafficking rings.
America’s vast access to the Internet makes it simple for sex traffickers to solicit, buy, sell, and arrange sex with minors. The prevalence of social media and sites such as Craigslist and Backpage make it easy for sex traffickers to lure vulnerable teens. Most commonly, with the promise of romance, modeling jobs, or access to drugs and alcohol.
As scary as these statistics are, there are steps that parents can take to dramatically reduce the susceptibility of their teenagers. Traffickers prey on the most vulnerable and uninformed. It’s vital that we oversee our children and educate our sons and daughters on how to protect themselves.
6 Steps to Keep Your Kids Safe:
1. Monitor social media accounts
The majority of traffickers and their recruiters find their victims through social media, especially visual ones like Instagram. Photos that appear innocent to parents can often attract the attention of sex trafficking recruiters. Keep accounts private at all times (check the settings in each app). Have continuous discussions with your kids about online safety.
2. Make sure your teen travels in packs and is aware of surroundings
Teenagers, particularly young girls, who are alone at malls, movie theaters, skating rinks, etc. are a top target for traffickers. This is particularly important when traveling, as recruiters often target teen tourists. Coach them to be aware of their surroundings and any person whose behavior (staring, following, etc.) gives them a bad gut feeling. Teach them how to ask for help.
Also, be sure that your teen understands never to meet a stranger in person. Even if they think they know them well from online interactions.
3. Have a secret code word or phrase
For example, saying or texting, “I’m fine” means “Not okay! I need help!” Teens may have gone willingly to meet someone they “know” on social media, and only then realize later that they’re in a dangerous situation. If they still have their phone, they can use this code without raising the suspicion of the recruiter (or to get out of any precarious situation).
4. Explain what sex trafficking is and how recruiters may target them
Children between the ages of eight and 14 are the hottest commodity for traffickers. At earlier ages, this may mean keeping a tight lid on online interactions and educating kids about going anywhere with strangers. At the older end of the spectrum, it’s time for more frank discussions. This should include sex trafficking, personal safety, and protecting themselves both on and offline.
5. Encourage your children to watch their drinks
Recruiters will infiltrate high school parties and attempt to drug their victims. Teach your son or daughter to never leave a beverage (or even food) unattended.
6. Consider tracking
Install GPS tracking or a location services app from your cell phone carrier or install one on your teen’s car so you can locate them if needed.
Teenage human trafficking may seem like something that could never happen in your neighborhoods. Thankfully, it’s still unlikely. But smart preventative measures can bring peace of mind and create savvy teens who know how to guard their personal safety.
If you or someone you know may be a victim of trafficking, call the national human trafficking hotline at 888-373-7888 or text “HELP” to 233-733.