*Human trafficking, including sex trafficking, has been exacerbated worldwide by the pandemic and is linked in large part to increased time spent online during lockdowns, studies say.
“In the COVID-19 era, many criminal activities are already moving online, taking advantage of the increased time people spend connected at home, or going further underground. Crime detection and investigation are more demanding, and victims become less visible to the authorities,” states a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Broadband use increased by 47 percent between 2019 and 2020, according to technology company OpenVault. Other estimates of total internet activity suggest that it may have increased up to 70 percent. Much of the surge in 2020 came from reliance on mobile devices, averaging roughly an additional 30 minutes per day for the typical American.
The connectivity underlies what some analysts have identified as three major sources fueling the increase in human trafficking, particularly in sex trafficking: An uptick in pornography consumption; increasing loneliness brought on by the lockdowns, social distancing and quarantines; and pornography as a substitute for human interaction.
“Since COVID has driven people online even more, we have seen a significant increase in the use of chat rooms and social media to advertise the sale of children and teens,” said Laura Parker, co-founder and CEO of The Exodus Road, a Colorado nonprofit that fights sex trafficking.
“Sex traffickers especially have been driven out of the in-person marketplace and are targeting the digital space.”
An increasing number of human traffickers find their victims through social media, according to the Polaris Project, a “data-driven social justice movement to fight sex and labor trafficking,” according to its website.
“Based on survivor testimony and research, sex traffickers and child predators appear to be using popular social media apps such as Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok to identify, groom and exploit children in the online space,” said Dawn Hawkins, CEO of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation.
“In many of the cases occurring on these platforms, minors are receiving unsolicited direct messages from strangers who will often pose as peers or as cohorts from nearby areas.”
Parker said the scope, severity and traps of human trafficking are further complicated by misinformation.
“Parents don’t realize that because of their children’s easy access to the internet and social media, trafficking risks may be as close as their child’s cellphone,” she said.
The Exodus Road has released a free training platform called TraffickWatch Academy that outlines “the basic components of labor and sex trafficking, what slavery looks like here in the U.S., how to recognize signs of trafficking and practical steps for viewers to personally combat this complex crime in their communities.”
Eighty-two percent of child sex crimes originate from social media sites, according to the Organization for Social Media Safety.
Sexting among young people has become increasingly prevalent with 27.4 percent receiving sexts and 12 percent forwarding a sext without the consent to do so, according to a 2018 analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics.
A study on “Computers in Human Behavior” published in 2018 found that nearly a third of girls receive sexts from online strangers; girls have much more negative experiences of sending sexts; boys have more positive; and online risk-taking behaviors are strongly related to increased likelihood of sexting.
Sexting is dangerous for many youths because once a sext is sent, the recipient gains control and bargaining power, often threatening violence if the victim does not do as told, therapist Cheryl Kosmerl said in an article on The Exodus Road website.
Technology companies have devised ways to help parents manage and address the increased influx of inappropriate conduct on the internet. Canopy is one example of a parental control app that allows parents to filter the content on all internet sites that their children visit.
Street Grace is another organization that uses technology to help combat the commercial sexual exploitation of children. It provides training for communities impacted by sex trafficking and has an AI chatbot called Gracie. The Street Grace initiative Transaction Intercept “works to find the ‘buyers’ of minor sex and erodes their notion of ‘anonymity,’” the site says.
“Most importantly,” the U.N. reports says, “the pandemic has exacerbated and brought to the forefront the systemic and deeply entrenched economic and societal inequalities that are among the root causes of human trafficking.
“Restriction or control of movement of victims is a common feature of trafficking in persons. Lockdowns and confinement could reinforce the isolation of victims and reduce drastically any chance of them being identified and removed from such exploitative situations.
“During the pandemic, there are additional obstacles to accessing services, assistance and support, due to rules on confinement at home and related closure of NGOs and government offices. Isolation and social distancing can exacerbate mental health issues and disrupt any access to informal support networks.”
Edited by Richard Pretorius and Judith Isacoff
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