Study Details Link Between Social Media and Sex Trafficking

Social media is increasingly being exploited to contact, recruit and sell children for sex, according to a study by The University of Toledo Human Trafficking and Social Justice Institute.

The study, which was requested by the Ohio Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Commission, reveals how traffickers quickly target and connect with vulnerable children on the Internet through social media.

“It is vitally important to educate parents, professionals and youth – especially our middle school or teenage daughters who may be insecure – about the dangers of online predatory practices used by master manipulators,” said Dr. Celia Williamson, UT professor of social work and director of the UT Human Trafficking and Social Justice Institute. “Through this outreach and education, we can help save children from becoming victims of modern-day slavery.”

“We know predators are using the internet to find their victims, and this eye-opening study highlights what a predator looks for in a victim and helps parents recognize the signs that their child may be a target,” Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said. “Using real-life examples, this study provides valuable information that parents can use to start open and honest conversations with their children about staying safe online.”

Through a series of 16 in-depth interviews by the institute’s staff and student interns with knowledgeable members of Ohio law enforcement, judges, direct service providers, advocates and researchers who engaged with victims who were trafficked online, the study outlines how traffickers connect to vulnerable youth online, groom the children to form quicker relationships, avoid detection, and move the connections from online to in-person.

“The transition from messaging to meeting a trafficker in person is becoming less prevalent,” Williamson said. “As technology is playing a larger role in trafficking, this allows some traffickers to be able to exploit youth without meeting face-to-face. Social media helps to mask traditional cues that alert individuals to a potentially dangerous person.”

Williamson cites a 2018 report that says while 58 percent of victims eventually meet their traffickers face to face, 42 percent who initially met their trafficker online never met their trafficker in person and were still trafficked.

The experts, whose identities are not being released, said the traffickers educate themselves by studying what the victim posts on commonly used view-and-comment sites such as Facebook, Instagram or SnapChat, as well as dating apps such as Tinder, Blendr and Yellow, or webcam sites like Chatroulette and Monkey, in order to build trust.

“These guys, they learn about the girls and pretend to understand them, and so these girls, who are feeling not understood and not loved and not beautiful … these guys are very good at sort of pretending that they are all of these things and they really understand them and, ‘I know how you feel, you are beautiful,’ and just filling the hole that these girls are feeling,” said a professional contributing to the study.

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