Title--STUDENT IMPACT: Protecting Your Child in the World of Human Trafficking

Written by Teresa Goodnight

If we want to know how to protect our children, we are going to have to come out of our self-imposed prisons of propriety and get real. We all want to know how to protect our children, but many of us don’t want to have these conversations. We don’t want to talk with The Demand Project, much less our kids, about the realities they are facing.

I’ve honestly never been so uncomfortable in an interview. My Baptist roots left me pretty secluded from discussions like I entered into with Jason and Kristin Weis of The Demand Project. I was visibly uncomfortable. I cried. Twice. When you have a child, you just don’t want to imagine it is REMOTELY possible these kinds of predators are out there looking to consume them. So, let’s start at the beginning together. It’s past time to get real and up close to this threat.

Every time I bring up The Demand Project, the first question out of the mouths of all the moms around is “How can I protect my kids?” So, let’s get this on the table up front: Social media access needs an age limit. The Demand Project team suggests 15 as the earliest age. You pick the access . Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, TikTok, Messenger, video game chat rooms like FortNite—they’re all the same. They are an open door to allow a predator to invade the personal space of your child. If you don’t think they are hanging out in video game chat rooms waiting to pounce every bit as much as they are perusing Instagram, then they already have an advantage over you and your child.

How far that invasion can go depends largely on the parents. You might think that 15 sounds a bit restrictive. But honestly, would you let a 50-year old man into your child’s bedroom for a private conversation every night? Of course not. You really have to get yourself inside the scenario where good kids get trapped. You must keep the conversations open. You have to stay engaged with any of this activity. You also must help your kids know what to look for and involve them in the protection process.

Every time I bring up The Demand Project, the first question out of the mouths of all the moms around is “How can I protect my kids?” So, let’s get this on the table up front: Social media access needs an age limit. 

Inside the Predator’s Moves

So, let’s step inside the innerworkings of these predators for a minute. They are smooth operators regardless of morality. I’ll frame this up for girls, to paint the picture better, as they are the biggest target. However, make no mistake, these exact things happen to young boys as well.

Predators start their approach very innocently. They might ask the age of the girl. They send them a compliment. They crack the door open. They communicate back and forth with them very carefully. They build up trust and admiration. Then, they progress into “Can you send me a photo?” Then, “Can you send me MORE of a photo? Maybe pull your shirt up a little bit? Oh, come on.” The girls giggle. They find the attention flattering. In a moment of haste, they snap a photo that’s a little more revealing than the last. The compliments come. The door keeps opening.

These hunters are so calculating in their moves. They know the art of manipulation. Our young girls might be looking for attention. Maybe they just had a bad breakup. Failed a big test. Didn’t make the cheer squad like they hoped. They might just find the attention a tiny bit flattering. They might not realize the “boy” breaking the law right now could instead be a calculating, perverse man breaking the law, who is a possibly more serious predatory threat.

Jason Weiss of The Demand Project said,  “There’s grooming going on. The guys I talk to say things like ‘Baby girl. You’re my honey/boyfriend/girlfriend.’ These kids have never felt this weird feeling before. Then the predator sees them naked for the first time and calls it such an honor. Then, he shares pictures of himself naked. He certainly considers it an equal honor to expose himself to a 12-13-14 year old innocent child. The relationship continues to develop into something meaningful to a child. Then, the predator offers to help them. ‘I’ll coach you on how to hide the app and how to delete the chat so that your parents won’t see it.’” I just listened, as he continued “Pretty soon, the girls feel they’ve found whatever it is they wanted.”

I could see where that kind of treatment could make girls feel pretty or popular. Right or wrong, whatever they feel they might be missing socially can start to feel met with this newfound “relationship.” As things develop, the children begin to cross lines until they’ve crossed the one they can’t take back—that one photo. The trap is sprung.

Once the girls have transmitted a photo that could ruin their reputation, it can quickly become “sextortion” if the girl tries to end the communication. Girls fearing punishment from parents or humiliation at school if the photo gets out start to comply with this manipulative huntsman to self-protect; meanwhile, they are falling deeper and deeper into the clutches of the monster on the other side of that screen.

Even if it doesn’t come to blackmail, the girl becomes comfortable sharing more and more until the relationship has escalated to a very serious threat to her and even her family. We must understand that these guys want what they want. It’s out of control at this point. So, to expect any sort of normal behavior is unrealistic.

Here are just a few things children share not knowing the possible dangers:

  • Name of their school
  • Name of their parents
  • Their phone number
  • Their church
  • Names of the favorite places they like to go
  • Schedules of when they will be there
  • Where they take dance lessons
  • Their favorite place to eat
  • Their address

The list can go on and on. Anyone with the internet can easily use any piece of that information to get exactly what is needed to get to that child if they wanted.

The information isn’t always shared directly with the predator. We all tend to just not think about it. These hunters can read t-shirts with school names in photos. They can figure out schedules for the dance school you select when the girls (or parents) are tagged. You can create a pretty big collage of everything about a child with just a little bit of access. When the kids are hoping to get more and more followers—they often leave their social media sites wide open without a privacy screen allowing anyone to see whatever they want to find them.

Predators can be completely well versed in anything they want to know about a child as they follow those posts, photos, videos and activities. They look for moments to sneak in and start their pursuit. The more they know, the easier it is to find that perfect point for sextortion.

These predators know the language of the day. Whether it’s emoji’s or text lingo, they know how to disguise themselves. Jason said, “There are things we need to get the public to know, so that they can be smarter about what they’re doing with their kids to keep them safer.” We have to stay alert.

I hope I have your attention. If not, maybe this will wake you up a bit.

Come on into My Daughter’s Room Sir

Kristin Weis of The Demand Project  shared, “I remember the first time I watched Jason in a case where he was talking to this guy. Jason knew it was a little bit different, but the guy was asking for bad pictures. Of course, he said he couldn’t send a pic. Then all of a sudden, this guy took over his computer and these things are popping up all over the place. There were threats of ‘If you don’t do this, I’m gonna hurt your family.’” Kristin went on, “This guy was talking to you over here and now he says he has your home address. Someone older might not fall for that, but if you are young and freaked out? It can easily happen.”

“Kids are unknowingly setting themselves up.” said Kristin. She said a bit cautiously, “Do you know who’s largely to blame? In many ways, it’s the fault of the parents and the kids. You read or hear about everyone wanting to know what the government is going to do to stop these predators, but what the heck does the government have to do with your day-to-day life? Nothing. They have nothing to do with our kids and what they’re doing. It’s our responsibility. We pay for these devices. We give them access to a world-wide platform where a 50-year-old guy, who maybe looks like he’s younger, can walk right into your daughter’s bedroom. He can be with her while she gets dressed and you didn’t check him out? Why would you do that? You might as well open the door and say ‘Come on in! Go have some fun with my daughter.’ Would you honestly let a 50-year-old man in your house to just sit with your daughter up in her room and talk? It’s essentially the same thing.”

Kristin added, “Don’t misunderstand. You don’t stop giving the phone. Tech is so integral to the world these days. You have to teach them empowerment and how to be responsible. We have to talk to them. We can’t worry about saying penis and vagina. My gosh, who cares about that? If you don’t talk straight to these kids about it when they are ready, somebody else will.”

When the kids are hoping to get more and more followers—they often leave their social media sites wide open without a privacy screen allowing anyone to see whatever they want to find them.  

Education and Communication

Education and communication between parents and children is critical. When it becomes broken, the doors open further for someone to become a victim.

  • Keep communication open with your kids.
  • Let them know they can talk to you.
  • Have the sex talks. Have them more than once. Keep that door open.
  • Have the “predator” behavior discussions to make them aware who and what is out there. Knowing how they work sets your child up to know when someone is crossing lines and could be unsafe.
  • Have a safe word for your younger child no one could guess (in case someone tries to pick them up as “sent by their mom/relative.”) I’d tell them to run first and ask for the safe word later, but if the child is engaged in conversation make sure they know to listen for the safe word.
  • If your social media pages are public, then make sure what you put out there is information you are ok for that predator to know.
  • Engage in their video game worlds. Check out who is checking them out.
  • Follow their pages and their posts. It’s not about privacy. It’s about protection.

The Demand Project hosts sessions where they can give much more detailed advice on how to be safe, but this list gives you a place to start. Start now. Really. Kristin said, “We will never end sexual perversion. So, as an organization, we go to the approach with prevention to empower and educate a kid on not becoming a victim.”

Caught off Guard Myself

In January, my then 4-year old said, “Mom—can you download TikTok for me?” I had never heard of it until Jason and Kristin mentioned it in my interview as a great tool for predators. The look on my face sent the wrong message to my daughter. I was just so shocked she had heard of it. We had a longer discussion about it to help her know it was ok she asked.

Evidently a 6-year old in a class she is in was given an account by her parents and told her to get it. My radar went up. Before I spoke with this team, I might have thought it was harmless. I don’t know. Maybe I would have entertained the idea. Thankfully I’ll never have to know. I knew she didn’t need access to such a tool in the hands of these predators at her age.

Sadly, the little girl who had access is in a broken home and expresses frustrations in the class causing disruption. She’s actually the exact kind of target these predators would be looking to find. Her parents were never at the class due to work and health reasons, but I spoke with her grandmother at the next event. I couldn’t just let her be vulnerable without saying something.

We all have to come together to be a village for our kids. There is no room for fear of overstepping when it comes to protecting these little ones. The world is changing so rapidly, we can’t all be expected to keep up with everything. So, helping other parents be aware of potential problems is really important.

Let’s Get Even More Real—Your Kids and Porn

According to Jason and Kristin, “Kids are some of the biggest victims of pornography these days that help generate the demand for trafficking. They don’t have to watch it on their phone. The other kid at school will show them. So, they feel we have to focus on empowering educated kids both to not become victims of predators or becoming a predator themselves.”

“Honestly, we believe some of the biggest producers and distributors of child porn are actually the children themselves with their phones. First base is becoming a paycheck. Sexting in a picture doesn’t stay between two phones. If you’re underage and you take a naked selfie, you’ve just made child porn. If you send that picture to someone you just committed a federal crime,” said Jason. 

“There are kids just sending pictures to a boyfriend or whomever and that it’s different, but yet it’s not. Once they are caught, they now will need to be on the sex offender registry as they are graduating and trying to get a job or hoping to get into a college. That’s really tough, but whatever it takes to get this message across—we have to do it.” Jason added.

Kids Requesting Nudes

Kristin said, “Our son just turned 18. One reason he’s been popular in high school is because he never asked for nudes. He has a lot of girls who are just friends, because they know he’s not gonna ask for those. Pretty much all the guys around him—they ask.”

Kristin expounded, “When we talk at the schools, we tell the kids ‘Tell someone. Don’t ask for nudes. Girls stop sending them.’” Jason added, “For one thing, everything they put on social media ends up everywhere. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to trace them and pull them all back once they have gone out.” Then Kristin chimed in, “Every kid, like it or not, is making this history for a future employer, a future husband or wife. I mean it’s out there forever. If you think that stuff disappears, you’re an idiot. Snapchat—if it’s there for a minute and you take a picture of it out on your phone—guess what. It’s out there forever. It never goes away, because there’s always it a handprint on that social media for the rest of your life. So, the biggest distributors of child porn are actually the kids themselves.”

Summing Up the Threat

Sex trafficking isn’t in just other countries. It is in THIS country. There’s only so much “coincidence” I’m able to swallow with a story like Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide in a cell where the cameras happened to be off, the guard happened to be gone and so on. Big players did not want to be named.

We need to wake up to the possibility that all sorts of professional and wealthy men can be in the game. They can be consumers with big pocketbooks. Doctors, lawyers, politicians—haven’t we seen enough to know they are out there? It’s not just them. It’s also that nice gymnastics coach. That piano teacher. That church Sunday School teacher. Look it up.

Keep your guard up parents.

They certainly are.

A Mom Shares it All (But Not on Purpose!)

Do you even realize how much you are sharing on social media?

I wanted to test out how much I could find about a child without being a friend to the parent on Facebook. I hopped on. Typed in Jenks. It listed a Jenks cheer group. I clicked on the group innocently advertising their squad and classes. My next click took me into the names of all the women and kids who had “liked” the posts. My next two clicks landed me on the page of someone I happen to know, but just am not friends with on Facebook. In about 20 seconds, I could read the name of her children. I knew what activities they participated in. I knew the names of aunts and uncles. I knew their ages and their schools. With another five minutes or less, I could have known the time and dates of their cheer practices.

The woman’s page was public. So, everything she had was public. I know she would never want to expose her family like that. It caused me to look at my page really quick to make sure I had my privacy on. However, I found all sorts of pictures and stories that were inadvertently listed as public with my daughter. When I told my husband about my short little experiment, he reminded me that when you tag a friend, the friends of that friend can also see your post. Considering stories I have heard of porn addiction and bad decisions inside the Church, it’s safe to say that we might think we know our friends, but we certainly don’t know the friends of our friends. I just tagged a group last night. <FACE PALM>

It’s not to say that we need to shut ourselves or our kids out of every aspect of social media. That would backfire. However, I am saying—UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU ARE SHARING AND WITH WHOM. Then, make sure they understand the same.