Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve seen an increase in reports of the online exploitation of children.
Trafficking is happening everywhere: not just in developing countries, but also in first world nations and especially online. Last year saw changes in child abuse reporting rates and trafficking reporting rates that show an increase in the online sexual exploitation of children.
Victims of trafficking generally come from vulnerable populations, and in many cases, the COVID-19 pandemic has exasperated that vulnerability in the digital world. Women and children are at a higher risk for sex trafficking than before and there is a higher chance of re-victimization for survivors. For example, some survivors are being forced to return to their traffickers for financial support during the lockdowns. Other factors that affect safety include the ways federal and state resources are being reprioritized and the general lack of attention to the issue.1
UN Women and OSCE recently released a study that addresses emerging human trafficking trends and consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. It also provides guidance for preventing and combatting human trafficking. According to the survey, “the pandemic exacerbated and exposed the already existing gaps in national anti-trafficking frameworks overall, and particularly in National Referral Mechanisms (NRM) and equivalent systems. It has also exacerbated pre-existing socio-economic inequalities and has brought to light the gender discrimination and harmful social norms that sustain violence against women and girls, including trafficking.” They found a higher vulnerability to recruitment and grooming by traffickers online, as well as trafficking motivated by higher demands for child sexual abuse materials (CSAM, such as child porn).1
According to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, just as the world turned to online options to resume work, school, etc., traffickers also pivoted to online activities. This could lead to an increase in children being sexually exploited through social media, gaming systems, messaging platforms, and the dark web.2 The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) reported that tips of online child exploitation nearly doubled from 6.3 million in the first half of 2019 to 12 million through June of 2020.
So what are some steps we can take to prevent online exploitation?
- Understand the facts about the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC); CSEC is the exchange of any sex act with a minor for something of value. Ultimately it is another form of child sexual abuse.
- Teach your kids digital safety practices, how and why to protect their identity online, caution around chatting with strangers, and even create boundaries around internet activity. Set ground rules, be proactive, and keep lines of communication open between you and your kids.
- Understand the signs that something isn’t right and gently ask questions. Has your child become more secretive about their friends and online activities? Have you witnessed an unusual shift in attitude or behavior? Keep an eye out for things that are out of place.
- Reach out to those you know who are more isolated, and therefore more vulnerable. Find safe ways to support and be there for each other!
- Get trained on how you can help prevent CSEC here.
- Reach out to your legislators – push for anti-trafficking legislation including addressing trafficking online
- It is estimated that 70-90% of children who are sexually trafficked, were sexually abused in a non-commercial manner prior to being trafficked. By preventing or intervening early in child sexual abuse, we can interrupt the path to CSEC.
- Learn about the risk factors, red flags, and physical indicators here.
- See the Women UN Report full recommendations here.
1. UN Women. “Addressing emerging human trafficking trends and consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.”, July 2020, 124.
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