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I was born in 1978, six years before Steve Jobs debuted the first Macintosh. My childhood was pretty much screen free — we didn’t even own a television. When I was in high school, we got a computer, an Apple IIGS that we used mainly for playing Carmen Sandiego and Oregon Trail. In 1996, when I went to college, I got my first cell phone. It was large and clunky.

Now as a parent in 2023, I am one of the multitudes of Gen X and Millenial parents who find ourselves raising the first generation of digital natives. I think I can speak for us all when I say, We are pretty much figuring it out as we go, aren’t we? My kids, 11 and 12, are growing up in a digital world that literally didn’t exist when I was a kid. There are no tried and true manuals for parenting our children growing up online.

Then throw in a global pandemic. When the world took a sharp turn in March of 2020, life as we knew it changed dramatically. Around the world, COVID-19 led to lockdowns and restrictions, leaving everyone — from individuals to schools to small businesses to global corporations — scrambling to suddenly pivot to online platforms. The learning curve was high as many realized the truth: adapt quickly or die.

Businesses were not the only thing adapting, though. Under the cover of the pandemic restrictions, the dark and insidious world of human trafficking found a new, extremely fertile terrain in which to operate.

As the entire world went online, so too, did predators. And they found a field ripe with potential victims, my kids among them. So for me — and probably for many of you — this fight against online exploitation is personal.

teen hand on phone screen

Check out these numbers:

  • ​​80% of children in 25 countries report feeling in danger of sexual abuse or exploitation online. 
  • More than half of respondents to a Unicef survey of people aged 18-24, experienced at least one online sexual harm during childhood (they were asked to do something sexually explicit or were sent something sexually explicit). 
  • Facebook flagged a staggering 73.3 million pieces of content under “child nudity and sexual exploitation” from Q1 to Q3 of 2022, just 4 million short of 2021’s overall total of 77.5 million. 
  • In just nine months of 2022, Facebook had almost equaled 2021’s content removals for child exploitation. It was a similar story on Instagram (6.08 million pieces of content flagged from Q1-Q3 of 2022 compared to 8.38 million in 2021) and TikTok (140 million pieces of content flagged from Q1-Q3 of 2022 compared to 141.7 million in 2021). 
  • Reports of potential incidents of online child sexual exploitation increased by 35% in 2021 compared to 2020, according to new data released by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Digital exploitation is an entirely different beast than in-person exploitation.

“If a predator were to try to groom a child at a park, or at a mall or somewhere, school, something like that, they really only had those few chances. Whereas on the internet, they can just easily close that chat box and close that app and go to that next possible victim,” says Alicia Kozak, victim-turned-advocate for raising awareness of online child exploitation, in a CBS News article.

The swiftly adaptable nature of exploitation online and the ever-evolving digital landscape demand constant vigilance and learning on the part of those who are fighting it.

So what can the average person do in what feels like a constantly changing environment? How can we as parents protect our children from a dangerous reality that we ourselves never experienced and may not understand?

mother and teen hugging and smiling outside

Here are four practical things you can do:

1. Understand the facts about online exploitation.

In order to effectively protect your children from exploitation, you need to know the danger. As a parent, you need to understand how traffickers think, what grooming looks like, and how easy it is for traffickers to pretend to be someone else online. You need to stay up to speed with new technology and be aware of what it’s capable of. As digital natives, your children will adapt more quickly than you do. They may even know more and understand technology better than you already. So it is imperative to educate yourself on the digital world your children inhabit.

In an effort to help you with this, we have recently launched Influenced, a set of interactive workshops for parents and teens to educate and empower you to teach your teen about online safety, and to equip your teen to stay safe in an online world and avoid exploitation. Read more about Influenced here.  

2. Teach your kids about online exploitation.

A child navigating the digital world on their own is like a child trying to drive a car on the interstate. They need to be taught how to navigate safely, be aware of what dangers they may encounter, and know what things to look out for.

  • Have regular conversations with your kids about the digital spaces they inhabit.
  • Help them understand the dangers of each platform and the risks of sharing information with strangers online.
  • Set ground rules for online interaction and be proactive about following up on them.
  • Create a safe space for your child to ask questions and share their feelings and encourage them to come to you if anything doesn’t feel right.

3. Know the signs that exploitation is occurring.

Even with teaching your children how to safely engage online, the risk of coercion or exploitation is always a reality. Knowing the signs to look for that indicate when grooming or exploitation is happening, or will potentially happen, could be the key to intervening before it’s too late.

On their own, any one of these could be just another day in Teen-ville. But when several are present, it may be an indication that there is something darker occurring.

  • Spending excessively more time online
  • Isolating or avoiding friends/activities
  • Inexplicable tiredness or anxiety
  • Loss of appetite
  • Calls or texts at strange hours
  • Evasive behavior or language
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Skipping school
  • Regular headaches/stomachaches
  • Extreme emotional reactions

If you suspect your child might be involved in a potential trafficking situation, don’t panic. From a place of compassion, ask direct and clarifying questions to identify the danger and come up with a plan to address any damage that has been done. If you need help or support, you can reach out to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (see below), which provides a wide range of support services for victims and their families.

4. Learn about and support organizations and legislation that are actively fighting online exploitation.

There are coordinated efforts, both domestically and internationally, to provide resources and enact legislation to address online trafficking and exploitation.

  • The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children runs a cybertipline (1-800-THE-LOST), which serves as the nation’s centralized reporting system for the online exploitation of children.
  • UNICEF coordinates a global collaboration called We Protect Global Alliance. This is a worldwide effort to pool resources and understand the best ways to protect children online and how to most effectively address it at a country level. 
  • In April 2023, Congress reintroduced a bill to protect children from online exploitation. The Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies, or EARN IT Act, would remove existing legal immunity from corporations that “knowingly facilitate or profit” from sexually explicit images of children.

Protecting our children from online exploitation may feel overwhelming, but taking practical steps to ensure the safety of our children online can help. The more I learn and understand about online exploitation, the more equipped I feel to lead my two kids through it.

I have to take it one day at a time, though, and give myself plenty of grace. Because the older I get, the faster technology seems to change.

Not unlike life, actually.