With more kids online during the coronavirus pandemic, parents are urged to be vigilant in monitoring their activity. BRYCE MEYER / THE NEW YORK TIMES
Photo: Bryce Meyer/The New York Times
Photo: Bryce Meyer/The New York Times

Opinion: Why heightened concern about porn, sex trafficking is needed right now

There’s a song that says the freaks come out at night.

Well, that was never more true than right now as the coronavirus continues its spread across America and beyond. The only difference is these pedophiles are working 24/7 to take advantage of these dark times as more children than ever are on the internet.

So, parents, beware.

Whereas there has been a reduction in the illicit massage business due to closures, that is not the case when it comes to online activity related to the commercial sexual exploitation of children.

“We also are hearing about and seeing an increase in the use of social media as part of the grooming process,” said Bob Rodgers, CEO of Street Grace, a national nonprofit that works to end the sex trafficking of children. “With the sudden increase of online activities for schooling, work, church and to occupy time, more and more children and teens are left to navigate online without as many guidelines and restrictions.

“For traffickers and those who would exploit children, this is an opportune time to reach a new audience and one that is already, most likely, wrestling with a heightened sense of anxiety, fear and sense of isolation.”

The activity he’s seeing around Atlanta, with the help of his organization’s online capabilities, shows a steady stream of people reaching out and making inquiries with the intent of purchasing sex with children. In other places like North Carolina, he’s actually seen an uptick.

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A new online analysis by Street Grace shows porn usage has shot up 12% to 15% across the country in the past two to three weeks.

Some larger websites, Rodgers said, are offering free access to porn, the absolute worst that can happen during these times.

Deborah J. Richardson, executive director of the International Human Trafficking Institute in Atlanta, agrees.

Deborah Richardson is executive director of the International Human Trafficking Institute, an initiative of the Center for Civil and Human Rights to raise awareness about trafficking. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“With that increased access, there is increasing demand to recruit and exploit children,” she said. “I’m also hearing that labor trafficking is emerging. There are ads popping up on sites that target teens offering cash money for work in places like warehouses.”

While these are new postings, similar ads are also placed by exploiters recruiting teens for traveling sales crews. When they report to work, they are taken to unknown locations, threatened with violence if their sales quotas are not met, and forced to work long hours. In the end, they are paid very little money because the exploiter deducts for meals, transportation, supervisory fees.

Parents who recently lost their jobs will see this as an opportunity for their teens to work and earn money to make ends meet. This may not be the outcome, Richardson warned.

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She urges parents to closely examine any ads their teens might show them. Does the ad include a website or contact information? Review the instructions on how your teens are being asked to be engaged. This may be an opportunity too good to be true.

While parents and other caregivers might view children’s online activity as a good thing, there are many instances when this is not so.

“It’s a gateway for people to do evil things and hurt the most vulnerable in society,” Richardson said. “It exposes them to predators who are intentionally seeking young people to ensnare.”

So how are parents and the rest of us to know the difference?

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Beginning April 2, the institute will offer free, online interactive training and live conversations at ihtinstitute.org to help parents protect children from predators.

The 60-day online initiative, called In The Meantime, will include a 20-minute online training session that is accessible 24/7; Interactive Zoom training on What Adults Need to Know About Social Media to Protect Children & Teens online; Facebook Live conversations with everyday people and experts sharing their expertise and stories; and a one-hour Actionary training, to learn about all forms of human trafficking, and what people can do about it, even while sheltering at home.

RELATED | Porn, it’s the new drug

I asked Richardson to share a few things parents can do now to protect their kids.

For those 10 or younger, begin with asking these key questions:

• Would you show me how some of your favorite games are played?

• Could we play together?

• How do you respond if someone bothers you while you are gaming?

• How much do you let people know about you while gaming?

• What kinds of people do you game with?

• Do you feel safe while you are gaming online? Why or why not?

For middle and high school youths, their biggest exposure happens when they share personal information online (where they live or go to school), have live chats with strangers or exchange photos.

Warn them that sexting — sending and receiving a sexually explicit photo online — could be a violation of Georgia’s pornography laws. Depending on the circumstances, they could be charged with a misdemeanor or a felony, sentenced to up to 20 years in prison and placed on the sexual offender registry. Remind your teen that once a photo is downloaded on your phone or computer, it can never be erased.

This does not have to be daunting, Richardson said. Educating yourself, talking with your children, and being vigilant in knowing what they are doing and with whom they are communicating online are essential to protecting them.

These are indeed dark times. The predators are busy, but together we can keep our children safe, starting right here: ihtinstitute.org. Right now.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

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