Startup Fortune, August 20, 2020: Technology plays a key role in in the growth, and prevention, of sex trafficking. In a report by nonprofit We are Thorn, 75% of survivors of sex trafficking reported being advertised online. There are more than 150,000 new escort ads posted online each day, and each day more children are being approached and groomed online by predators.
Digital Respons-Ability, a mission-based company providing research-driven holistic education in digital citizenship and Prevent Child Abuse Utah are working closely with the ICAC Taskforce to spread this education across the state. “Online safety is more than just sharing the don’t and fears of the Internet,” Carrie Rogers-Whitehead, the founder of Digital Respons-Ability said. “If you are working to change any behavior, you have to address all the whys of the behavior. So if I’m working to keep kids safe, I need to go beyond just talking about safety into things like digital literacy, communication, privacy and encouraging those social and emotional skills for children to set their own boundaries and recognize their feelings when they feel uncomfortable online.”
When trainers with Digital Respons-Ability teach K-12 students they talk a lot about those feelings. Children as young as 5 are asked to identify emotions and older teens are asked to evaluate and share their emotions to content online. The children are taught that it’s OK to feel scared, angry or other “negative” emotions from the Internet, but it’s what you do with those feelings that matters. And if children do feel negative, or uncomfortable, or confused, they should step back and reflect upon those feelings.
Education specialists with Prevent Child Abuse Utah (PCAU) support this work with both digital citizenship and sex trafficking education. Kenzie Lock, the Education Program Administrator with PCAU said “As students learn to recognize inappropriate online behavior, they become more savvy about predatory behavior and learn how to protect themselves from it. Students can more easily identify what is safe and unsafe, and become equipped to respond to such situations. This is especially important because they may be ashamed of some of the things that they have done online (sexting, sextortion, etc.).”
Sex trafficking and other sexual abuse thrives in secrecy and shame. If children are only taught those ‘don’t’ and ‘nos’ and told by the trusted adults in their lives that sex and some of their online activities are shameful—they are less likely to report.
“Classroom discussion breaks through the taboo cultural barriers that surround the topic of sex trafficking, and gives students permission to ask questions and voice their concerns,” said Kenzie Lock. “It creates a safe space and fosters a relationship of trust where students can further their knowledge and understanding of the nuances of sex trafficking and help to protect not only themselves, but their peers and families.” These classes bring the topic of sex trafficking out of secrecy.”
This digital citizenship education offered in Utah does not take place as an assembly, but smaller, focused and activity-based groups. Digital citizenship education and knowledge is just part of the solution to help prevent sex trafficking. Children must also have different attitudes and behavior to make that behavioral change.
“I can have knowledge not to eat too many cookies,” Rogers-Whitehead said. “But that knowledge won’t stop me from eating cookies if I want to! From our research, we find that students have a basic understanding of what they should and shouldn’t be doing online, but that doesn’t necessarily change their behavior.” Changing behavior takes time, effort, reflection and the support of parents and educators. It also takes skill-building. Children need education that helps build skills, not just knowledge. They need to learn to better emotionally-regulate. They need to practice setting boundaries and saying no to peers. They need to recognize feelings and report them. They are the ones that have to say, “no more cookies,” it can’t always be an adult.
Technology provides tools to predators to find and groom children for sex trafficking. But it also provides opportunities for children to develop their identities and interests, communicate with others, learn new things and find help. Teaching digital citizenship should be part of sex trafficking prevention education and law enforcement can work together with partners and educators to make that happen.