No one has been spared life changes in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, but even with the gravity of the situation, most adults have experienced some personal hardships that have caused their lives to completely change. For most teens, however, all they knew was school and friends, and overnight the regularity of both changed drastically. Anxiety in teens can lead to some very serious issues such as depression and acting out, and friend time is generally a great “treatment” for this anxiety. With stay-at-home orders, that friend time needed to be had over the phone or computer, and though human contact via those outlets is important for teens, the vastness of the web and social media brings with it another set of issues.
It’s not a rarity for young people to have many friends they only know through social media, and even celebrities are now accessible at the click of a “DM” (direct message) button, and there is an endless list of stories about kids’ heroes sending them personal messages back. Generally, though, those social media “friends” are people kids interact with around a given interest like music or skateboarding, and not so much a close friend like buddies from school. With school now online as well, more teens are trying to fill the “best buddy” void by seeking more meaningful friendships on social media. Though there are plenty of positive takeaways from these relationships (culture, perspectives, real friendship), it also is a place where online predators are lurking more readily, and precautions must be taken.
The global fight against sex trafficking is a hard fought one, but unfortunately COVID has caused many government resources to limit their movements, and many local law enforcement agencies to move resources around to help fight the (other) pandemic. Victims of trafficking, too, are now being forced to stay in the countries they’ve been smuggled too as travel restrictions prevent them from being able to go home even if they were allowed to.
Sadly, finances come in to play as well, and with so many out of work, youngsters are looking to help mom and dad put food on the table and a craigslist ad that might have been a red flag 4 months ago can seem a lot more enticing with the threats of eviction and hunger.
Even in terms of a well-off teen whose parents have continued working, the increases in screen time that teens (and many adults) are experiencing due to COVID boredom also result in increases in chances of being targeted by a predatory sex trafficker.
For parents, the easiest way to prevent dangerous situations online isn’t so much to restrict, but just to talk. In this crazy time, there is a lot of solace for young people that lies within the world of social media, and as they are stripped from plays, sports, band practices, etc., being able to still connect with friends is important for positive growth. With that, simply being honest and telling your kids about the very real danger of sex trafficking and how they have increased due to COVID is most experts’ best course of action.
For non-parents and parents alike, here are some things you can do in your every day lives to help the fight against this heinous enemy.
Keep an eye out for odd living situations like a youngster living with his or her employer, or multiple people living in a cramped space that seems otherwise normal, and don’t ever hesitate to call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 to report any of these signs.
With so many issues affecting the country and world, it’s also a sad truth that the rising numbers of sex trafficking victims is being underreported, so being a loud advocate and raising awareness is a way you can go above and beyond to help the cause. Writing elected officials works (look at all the changes happening involving police right now), as does hosting awareness events. The latter takes a little more creativity during lockdown, but even a Zoom happy hour with some big-hearted, open-eared friends can help spread the awareness needed to combat sex trafficking.
No matter the level of involvement, a little help can go a long way in this fight that is often much closer than we think it could possibly be.