SHERIDAN — Sex trafficking may not be the first danger that comes to mind when considering the impact of COVID-19 on individual communities, but the two are inextricably linked, according to Alexandra Stevenson, co-founder of the human trafficking prevention nonprofit Uprising. Uprising launched a new campaign for the month of May to encourage open conversation between parents and children about online safety as children spend significantly more time on devices at home.
Stress, emotional challenges and financial insecurity are vulnerabilities predators know to exploit when grooming a victim, Stevenson said.
Uprising is sharing in the challenge for many anti-human trafficking organizations around the world: human trafficking awareness is low on the list of priorities for many, against seemingly more urgent needs.
Uprising typically brings in revenue by teaching in-person classes.
“As an organization, we know how critically important it is to still fund human trafficking prevention, especially right now,” Stevenson said. “I think that we need to find a balance between making sure people’s immediate needs are met…because something like not having food or shelter, those are vulnerabilities that can lead to trafficking.”
Even before the pandemic, sex trafficking predators often find victims through social media and online apps rather than snatching them from public places, she said.
A study by the anti-human trafficking organization Thorn found more than half of domestic juvenile sex trafficking victims met their trafficker via text, website or phone app.
Stevenson said rather than frightening parents and children or taking devices away altogether, the best prevention tactic is open and transparent conversation to make the online world a safer place. Children are well-equipped to get around parental restrictions and connect through loaner devices and free WiFi, she said.
Still, by opening the door to safe conversation, parents may be surprised at their child’s intellect, insight, thoughts and fears.
Predators target youth vulnerabilities from insecurity about physical appearance to family issues and relationships, Stevenson said. Information like which school the child attends, what sports they play and their social circle is readily available online — often unintentionally.
Armed with personal information, predators can make a victim feel like they know them already and understand their struggles better than anyone else.
Vulnerability, information, a false sense of security and trust and a desire to connect culminate in a dangerous grooming process, when the predator may begin to ask for more personal information, photos or time to meet in person, Stevenson said.
“Creeps can seem nice at first,” she said.
The ostensible love, reassurance and financial stability predators often seem to offer may continue over time, as predators are “notoriously patient” while waiting for a child victim to respond to grooming.
According to the Polaris Project — a nonprofit, non-governmental organization working to prevent modern-day slavery and human trafficking — human trafficking thrives on the social and economic consequences of a pandemic, especially in neighborhoods already plagued by substance addiction and poor financial security.
Labor exploitation is likely to increase as people take off-the-books jobs to stay afloat. Financial vulnerability increases the likelihood of being victimized by a sex trafficking predator, whose offer of money may quickly bring consequences like threats and violence, according to the Polaris Project.
A 2019 study by University of Maryland Assistant Research Professor Catherine Worsnop about the connection between outbreaks and human trafficking found trafficking increased in countries facing a disease outbreak, as governments make compromises in times of panic, criminal activity increases with competition for limited resources and economic strain takes funding away from prevention efforts. Three-quarters of humanitarian operations globally are temporarily suspended, according to Global Protection Cluster.
Pornhub recently offered free use of their premium site for one month to encourage people to stay at home and consume pornography, leading to a 24.4% increase in website traffic. Google Analytics calculated that searches for pornography increase 4,700% when children are home from school, Stevenson said she found through her own research.
Consuming pornography as an adolescent can impeded healthy sexual development, she said. An increase in demand for videos leads to an increase in victims of sexual exploitation.
Small U.S. towns have a sense of security unique from other locations — one that can provide some positive protective strengths, Stevenson said. Still, whether in Sheridan or New York City, children can access the same websites from anywhere on a device.
“It doesn’t matter whether you believe trafficking is in your backyard or not, it can be in your kid’s hand in their bedroom without you knowing if you’re not willing to start these conversations,” she said.
This month, Uprising plans to share video clips of their prevention classes, highlighting consent and online safety. Stevenson’s best advice for parents is to allow conversations to happen naturally without unnecessary accusations toward a child.
Ask what they are doing on their phone, engage by asking questions with genuine interest and open doors for comfortable dialogue in both directions, she said.
Uprising’s campaign includes a contest through the end of May for the public to share how families are staying connected and busy without devices. Commenting on the Facebook post describing an activity enters each family to win a basket of activities. The winner will be chosen by random drawing at the end of the month.