Technology has forever changed the way sex trafficking works.
By Hannah Nuñez
Sex trafficking has become more of a problem now than it’s ever been in the past.
A concept that once may have seemed distant and obscure is now closer than ever before. Online sex trafficking has reached an all-time high, yet few people even know the severity of the situation. LisaBeth Thomas is the founder of Not on Our Watch Texas, a nonprofit that spreads awareness about the dangers and reality of online child exploitation. It is no longer acceptable to live in ignorance about the issue; in order to stop the problem, one must be conscious of it first.
When Thomas initially found out that Texas was first across the nation for human trafficking, she knew that other mothers immediately had to be made aware of what they were up against. Thomas, along with Andrea Sparks and their team, launched the Not on Our Watch Texas awareness campaign on Sept. 7. The goal is to spread the word about what could potentially be occurring behind closed doors.
Change in Scenery
Many are tired of hearing about the pandemic, but to say it still doesn’t have an extreme impact would be ignorant. COVID-19 had children stuck inside for days on end, meaning that rather than seeing friends at school or going to the park, kids were forced to find that human interaction through their phones. “This sudden flood of bored and isolated children online directly affected how predators lure in their victims,” Thomas says. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children states that between 2018 and 2022, reports relating to the sexual enticement of a child went up by 567%, with a fifth of that increase occurring within just the first few months of the lockdown. The idea of changing every child’s relationship with technology overnight is discouraging, but at this moment the concerned population does have the power to adapt to the circumstances and emphasize safety.
“The smartphone is the new white van,” says Thomas.
Rather than lurking around parks or shopping centers, these predators have conveniently nestled their way inside kids’ phones. In order to keep children protected, it’s imperative to acclimate to this change of scenery before it’s too late. Thomas encourages parents to educate themselves on the problem at hand rather than stick to what’s familiar. “We can’t go about this the same way we did before because the entire domain has shifted,” Thomas says. “Altering our mindset to better fit today’s age is the only way to stay tuned into these potential risks.” Long past are the days of hiding in ignorance and mindful bliss; people no longer have the privilege of assuming the best when a smartphone is both a tool for information and a potential gateway to danger.
In worst-case scenarios, cyber exploitation has the capability to develop into a physical crisis. In these situations it may not be as easy to recognize trafficking as one may think. While sexual exploitation is the most well known, human trafficking is a large umbrella that also covers debt bondage, forced labor and domestic servitude. Austin’s Assistant Special Agent in charge of the Austin office of Homeland Security Investigations Stanley Seto emphasizes the importance of knowing indicators and understanding available resources.
“Inconspicuous traits could be something as simple as a person avoiding social interactions or even lacking capability to freely speak. Whereas more obvious signs include no longer possessing control over physical and mental autonomy or being held against one’s will.” Being aware of these red flags allows people to understand if they or others are in a dangerous situation that requires authoritative care. “The immediate response to these types of problems should always be contacting local law enforcement,” Seto urges. “We work with a victim-centered approach, meaning that no matter what, the priority is to have those in need stabilized and taken care of.”
The department prides itself on their victim assistance program as well as outreach agencies such as the Strategic Targeted Reach Program, designed specifically to connect victims with health care, transportation and hospitality. All online trafficking has the potential to evolve into a more physical sense, but if the public is aware of common indicators and armed with proactive resources, there is a chance for prevention and aid.
How to Play Your Part
Being aware of these dangers is crucial, but change can’t happen if it isn’t actively applied. Communication between a parent and child is what makes the difference between life and death. “To completely cut out technology is unrealistic, but we have the power to strengthen relationships through conversation,” says Thomas. The idea of sitting down with a child and discussing the potential danger they hold in their own hands is something of a dystopian nightmare, but while this conversation is tough, it’s imperative for safety.
“We have to allow our minds to be blown behind closed doors but prioritize our kids in the moment,” Thomas insists. It’s difficult to really confront, but take a deep breath and push past the discomfort in order to move toward a safer future for all children.
No matter how daunting this new wave of trafficking is, we can’t forget the power each and every one of us carries as women. If we as individuals have the capability to save lives with one conversation, the potential we hold in numbers is limitless. Allowing ourselves to be engulfed with the horror that this topic holds is only motivating predators to continue their crimes. We must begin the process of saving lives, one conversation at a time.