Traffickers Are Moving From The Street to the Smartphone

Traffickers Are Moving From The Street to the Smartphone


He was 17, a homecoming king and star athlete. He thought he was consensually sexting with a teen peer on the internet. How could he have imagined it was a sextortion scammer operating from Africa? Unable to imagine the humiliation of discovery, he died by suicide.

She was 15 and on Snapchat when she thought she had finally found a group who accepted her for who she was. How could she have imagined her “friend of a friend” was really recruiting for a trafficker at her school? Unable to find a safe way, she began using drugs, stealing and eventually fell into “the life.”

Human trafficking strikes fear in the heart of every parent, but it is a reality in our world today. Sadly, these stories are among hundreds I’ve personally seen as an anti-trafficking advocate working with abused, exploited and unsuspecting people. Although it’s hard to talk about, it’s absolutely essential to educate kids about the risks and warning signs of trafficking in a supportive and empowering way that increases confidence about their safety.

Well-intentioned but ill-informed anti-trafficking advocacy can promote misinformation that spreads unnecessary fear. Let’s talk facts. The Office on Trafficking in Persons estimates that there are nearly 28 million victims of trafficking worldwide, and in the U.S. the primary methods are labor and sex trafficking. Anyone can be vulnerable to trafficking but people experiencing family dysfunction, childhood sexual abuse, mental health struggles, substance abuse, disabilities or those who identify as gender non-conforming are at significantly greater risk. Parents are often afraid of kidnapping by traffickers, but social media and online interactions pose a far greater risk than a scary stranger in a grocery store.

Traffickers are moving from the street to the smartphone, a world where it is easy to deceive, groom and coerce teenagers who don’t yet have the developmental thinking ability or life experience to recognize risk. Signs of trafficking include extra cell phones given by a “friend,” expensive or lavish gifts, changes in personality, secrecy with online activities, fearful or anxious behaviors or new friends or romantic partners unknown to family or current friends.

What can you do?

First, don’t think: “My child would never do that!” All children need empowerment for safety and health. Second, communicate positive messages to your teen, acknowledging their strengths and affirming their self-worth. Let them know you always have an open door for any concern. Third, know your kids’ social circle. Invest in their friends, their friends’ parents, and other adults they spend time with.

Follow these tips for online safety:

  • Disallow social media use for children until they are at least 13, the minimum age set by federal law. 
  • Use privacy settings on any social media profile. 
  • Use a generic profile picture to avoid easy targeting. 
  • Disable geotagging from photos and location access services from social media apps. 
  • Accept only followers or friends whom you know in real life. 
  • Avoid posting personal information including birthdate and school name. 
  • Advise teens honestly about the dangers of being tricked into sexting and then blackmailed (sextortion). 
  • Initiate open conversations about gaming and social media chats, especially on apps that allow anonymous users. 
  • Talk to teens about deepfakes and deepfake pornography, and what to do if they see it. 
  • Tell your teen to never agree to go somewhere with a stranger they met on the internet. 

Want to know more?

  • Talk to your pediatric health care provider about protecting against the risk of trafficking. 
  • Make sure your school is ready to recognize and respond to the risk of trafficking with this toolkit from the Office of Trafficking in Persons. 
  • Check out free trainings for parents and caregivers, students, health professionals, school personnel and law enforcement. 
  • Use the “Core Competencies for Anti-Trafficking Response in Health Care and Behavioral Health Systems” report if you are a health professional or work in a health system or academic institution to evaluate your readiness to respond.  
  • Call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-888 if you suspect your child or someone you know may be a potential victim.

Human trafficking is scary and can make you feel anxious 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. Speak to your nurse provider or other primary care provider to learn more about ways to keep your children — and yourself — safe!

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