Violence Prevention Grey Bruce

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How Youth Sex Trafficking Stays Under the Radar

Written by Abbi Barrie

By now we’ve all heard the term “human trafficking”, and many of us have a sense of what that term means (if you aren’t familiar, there are some great articles on our news page that break it down). There has been a good amount of discussion about human trafficking in recent years, both locally and globally. While it may feel like this issue is no longer “news”, it is still very much relevant, even in Grey Bruce. In the words of Timea Nagy, trafficking survivor/ educator, “if you have highways, internet, and kids, then you have trafficking.”

We may think we understand what human trafficking looks like, but many still struggle to identify it. Maybe we think it will be obvious to us, and while there are always signs and clues if we know what to look for, it may not be as obvious as we’d think. In order to understand how youth sex trafficking stays under the radar, we have to look at our own beliefs about what it is and how it happens. Perhaps you’ve been worried about a young person and you’ve kept an eye out for them to go missing. While this certainly can happen when someone is trafficked, many people would be shocked to hear that a teen being trafficked can get picked up after school, go to a hotel, get dropped off at home to sleep in their bed that night, only to return to school the next day. All of this is hidden behind screens and social media accounts. How can a teacher or parent recognize a teen being trafficked if this is true? It’s impossible for adults to keep an eye on young people 24/7, even if we’d like to.

Often, teens being trafficked do not see themselves as victims, rather that they’re having “relationship problems”. When young people are groomed, it may start out as an exciting, empowering opportunity or feel that they’re falling in love. Every day, young people are overexposed to images on social media that promote a lifestyle which, in reality, isn’t attainable. They are constantly comparing themselves and striving to fit in and be seen, and trafficking often presents to them as an opportunity to achieve this. Just a few years ago we may have seen a majority of young people groomed and trafficked at malls, schools and coffee shops. Now, a teen doesn’t even need to leave their house to be trafficked.

There are countless spaces available to youth online where strangers from all over the world can “meet” and be introduced to each other’s worlds, whether it’s Discord, Instagram, online video games, or Snapchat. Even through mutual friends on social media you have endless access to meeting new people. This is a scary thought considering our youth have never known anything other than their digital world that we created for them – this is their normal. So how can we keep kids safe without putting them in bubble wrap and keeping them home until they are adults?

The most effective way to keep kids safe is to empower them with knowledge and tools to stay safe as they navigate the social media world. In Ontario (which is the hub of human trafficking in Canada), the average age of someone who is trafficked is just 13 years old. Many who are trafficked are even younger. This fact just emphasizes the need to educate and support young people about social media safety from early on, before age 13. While we can’t monitor their every move, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be aware of how they are using social media, and the most effective way to stay in the loop is to open up dialogue and allow them to ask questions. Teens need to know they can talk about what they see online without judgement or criticism.

Now, this is easier said than done. Asking your child about what they are seeing online may result in some feelings of panic. It’s okay, this can be scary stuff. But if your child is talking about it, that means they aren’t convinced that what they’re seeing is okay with them and this is an opportunity for them to explore ways to stay safe. During this Sexual Violence Prevention Month, you can help prevent youth sex trafficking by starting a conversation with the young people in your life. Here are some questions to reflect on with them:

  • What is your favourite social media platform (Instagram, Snapchat, etc.)
  • What do you like about using it?
  • What can be scary about it?
  • Have you ever received a message from someone you didn’t know? How did it make you feel?
  • What are some things that make you feel uncomfortable when you’re online?
  • What are some things that make you feel safer when you’re online?
  • Who in your life do you have to talk to about this stuff (friends, a teacher, etc.)?

These are just a few examples to get a conversation going, and regardless of what you ask, it’s crucial to make space in your relationship with them to have safe discussions and ask questions. Trafficking thrives in secrecy and isolation, and even though it can be scary to bring it up with children and youth, it is less scary when youth are empowered, supported and safe to share what they consume and are exposed to online. Teens need to explore the world on their own and find their independence, and the best way to keep them safe is to leave the door open for them to come to us if they need help. Sometimes it means planting seeds and taking a step back, which is counterintuitive when you’re worried about someone.

Ultimately, when teens know they have a safe person to go to and we show that we care without judging them, they will come to us when they are ready and need help. As adults, we can support young people by continuing to learn and be curious about their experiences. Some reflections for adults, parents and caregivers:

  • How am I making space for young people in my life to share their experiences with me?
  • What are my own biases about youth and victimhood?
  • What are some of my beliefs about social media? How might these beliefs come through in my conversations with young people?
  • What are my fears around asking young people about their experiences?
  • If I learn that something has happened or they are in trouble, what can I do? What resources are around me to get help?

There are supports and resources available in Grey Bruce. For more information about local anti-human trafficking initiatives, visit http://violencepreventiongreybruce.com/initiatives/human-trafficking-committee/ .

 

Abbi Barrie is a Youth Counsellor with Women’s House Serving Bruce Grey

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