A week after school shut down for the COVID-19 shelter-in-place, my younger sister told me that her friend’s Instagram page had a comment from an older person her friend was not following. The comment said that she was very pretty and was followed up with a dozen heart emojis. My little cousin recently posted a YouTube video of herself baking brownies. The third comment for her video was from an unknown older person asking her to be their friend.
The FBI reports that nearly every popular social media site is being used to recruit underage sex trafficking victims. Therefore, it’s very common to find child predators hiding in the comments of Instagram and YouTube content aimed at children.
Just last year, on May 8, 2019, the leader of a trafficking ring in Santa Clara County, who trolled social media for years to recruit minors, pleaded guilty.
A completely new world for traffickers has opened up on social media. It is all the more important now during these unprecedented times to keep an eye on kids’ use of social media because it is being used more to avoid boredom. Educating children is important, especially those who may not be confident or are unsure about the hazards of online predatory practices used by expert manipulators.
These days there are so many social media apps on the market. There is YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp and Facebook, to name a few. New ones are popping up so quickly that it is hard to keep track of all of them.
According to Common Sense Media, using any social network can be risky, but it's possible for kids to safely use these apps with adult supervision and a private account. The first setting to change in social media apps is to make it private. Accounts are public by default. Another thing to be aware of is people pretending to be someone else and creating fake accounts.
Some of these social media apps may not even be age-appropriate for kids. Much of the music in TikTok videos includes sexual and explicit lyrics. People can also be found dancing while wearing revealing clothes.
Social media organizations claim that they are trying to make their products safe for children. For example, Snapchat says it works with an organization called Thorn to help fight the sexual exploitation of children through technical innovation.
Facebook says its users are encouraged to report content that violates its policies, including any connection to trafficking. Teenagers’ Facebook accounts also have additional safety and privacy features that block public searches.
Last year I read an investigation by the BBC, which found that online predators were using TikTok to target underage users. The report said that TikTok did not suspend the accounts of people sending sexual messages to teenagers and children.
In addition to actively monitoring their kids’ online activity, parents should make sure their kids’ accounts are private and instruct them not to accept friend requests from strangers. Parents should use filters, close comments and secure passwords. They also should work to educate and empower their children about traffickers.
It is helpful to memorize the number for the multilingual National Human Trafficking Hotline: (888) 373-7888. You can also text “Help” to BeFree (233733).
In the end, my sister’s friend and my cousin both changed their Instagram and YouTube settings to private and turned off comments.
Anooshkha Shetty is an incoming junior at Los Altos High School. She has been creating awareness in the Bay Area and in Southern India about trafficking since freshman year. This year she earned her Girl Scout Gold Award for her project on child trafficking awareness.