NEW ALBANY — Parents could be one of the first lines of defense in protecting their children against unseen predators online.
That point hit home during a session at IU Southeast on Monday on how social media contributes to human trafficking, where more than half of the nearly 200 people in attendance were parents.
Speaker Stephanie Nancarrow, youth educator for the Indiana State Police, presented the segment during the second annual Southern Indiana Human Trafficking Awareness Conference, urging attendees to pay attention to warning signs, risk factors and to spread the word on how prevalent social media is in reeling in and exploiting youth and children for human trafficking rings.
“The internet is a prime tool for predators,” she said. “[Kids] can get into a lot of trouble in a matter of seconds.”
The U.S. Department of State estimates that between 14,500 and 17,500 people are trafficked annually in the U.S. Nancarrow said that 75 percent of trafficked victims were at one point sold online and for teens, who spend about nine hours per day on the internet, and even younger children, online activity as a 'protective wall' is an illusion.
While Instagram and Snapchat are among the most popular for teens, Nancarrow said any app or game that has a chat function can be a tool to let potential trouble in.
How it happens, she said, is that pimps first target the victims. They view profiles, starting by complimenting them or building false relationships to gain trust. They may offer them opportunities that sound better than their current situation.
Once trust is secured, the pimp moves on to trafficking and abuse through violence, threats or guilt.
Nancarrow said the victim is often trafficked within 24 hours of the pimp gaining trust.
The abuser essentially fill a need that the child is missing — risk factors include being a youth, having a family background of neglect, abuse or violence. They may be looking for fame, money, love or “someone who cares,” she said.
But human trafficking transcends race, age and gender, she said.
“Every teenager is looking for love,” she said.
And as it becomes easier to work through more anonymous channels — the false protection of a computer screen, the ability for abusers and johns to use throwaway phones and prepaid cards — it's big business.
And unlike drugs, Nancarrow said, pimps “can sell a body multiple times a day.”
It's important for parents to play a big role in making sure their children are safe online, Nancarrow said. She recommends monitoring kids' online activity. One app that can help is called Mama Bear, which lets parents monitor their child's text and social media activity. They can also get location and speeding alerts.
But sometimes things can be harder to detect. With more than 3 million apps and more popping up every day, some have been created just to hide information from prying eyes.
There's an innocent-looking calculator app, for instance, that even when opened looks and functions like a calculator. But hidden within the app's settings is a secret vault where photos could be hidden.
Marianna Clark attended the session with her daughter, Ryley Nicole.
Nicole, now 19, has been acting since she was 8-years-old and wants to help spread the word about trafficking in the U.S.
“I've seen a lot of films and people popping up wanting to bring awareness to this which brought it to my attention,” she said. As an actor, she feels a responsibility to use her voice to help give back.
“I think as performers sometimes you gain a voice and a presence in society and people really listen to what you say sometimes,” she said. “And I want to kind of be the voice that [helps] pull this out.”
Clark said it was still important to keep an open dialogue about online safety, especially with the challenges that come with acting.
“It's something we've always talked about and been open about,” Clark said, adding that each child is different. Her son, who's 12, plays video games a lot more than he's on things like Facebook or Instagram, but there's still the social element to the game.
“I think you really have to evaluate each child differently and assess what you need to do,” she said. “Educate your kids — you would tell them not to talk to strangers on the street, [tell them not to] talk to strangers on the internet. It's no different.”