For those wondering how COVID-19 is affecting the world of sex trafficking, Rep. Chris Smith, (R-NJ) has a warning: traffickers have not stopped their exploitation, and victims may be more vulnerable than ever.
The long-time anti-trafficking advocate spoke to leaders in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) via a webinar on Monday. Smith cautioned "traffickers are not shut down – they haven't gone on holiday."
There is some good news – Smith and others who track patterns of exploitation believe that COVID-19 has forced some pimps and buyers to hit the "pause" button.
Artificial intelligence analyst Rob Spectre, the founder of Childsafe.AI, thinks the pandemic stay-at-home orders encouraged many buyers initially to slow down or stop seeking commercial sex because of infection worries and/or the difficulty of leaving the house. Spectre also points to economic losses and the drop in discretionary income as a deterrent.
Sex Buyers Going Online
But there's concern that buyers are now turning online, and finding an even wider pool of victims with millions of students connected to their devices all day as they pursue online schooling.
"New patterns of exploitation are emerging due to increased online activity, greater use of social media and social distancing practices," Smith told the OSCE leaders.
Kelly McCaughey, the volunteer and community engagement manager at Shared Hope International, says it's a difficult situation.
"Kids and teens who are home are almost completely dependent on their devices to complete schoolwork," she said. "Parents are balancing their own work demands with their new role as at-home educators, potentially resulting in hours of unsupervised screen time."
These kids can become sitting ducks for predators, who also may have extra, unsupervised screen time as they work from home.
"Predators who may otherwise refrain from exploitive and abusive conduct while at the office are now far more likely to use these extra hours of unsupervised time to identify, groom, and abuse children online," said McCaughey.
Anti-trafficking advocates say predators often find kids in online apps and games and pose as a friend or peer. After earning their trust they request some kind of sexual picture and then blackmail them.
What's not helping is hardcore porn sites like Pornhub that are offering free content in what they say is an effort to encourage people to stay at home.
Rep. Smith cautions that online porn can showcase both violence and criminal activity.
"Sites are hosting videos of trafficking victims, sexual abuse of children, and rape," he said. "There are reports from anti-trafficking groups that webcam sex trafficking is increasing. All of us need to increase our concern for both victims and survivors of human trafficking."
Donna Rice Hughes, internet safety expert and president of Enough is Enough, says porn is not just a temptation for adults but also for young children who can get drawn in and start viewing before they realize what is happening.
"Kids as young as 10 years old, between eight and 10 years old, make up about 25 percent of the porn users of the under 18 category," she told CBN News.
Help for Parents
They urge placing age-appropriate filters and monitoring tools on kids' devices and approving buddies on their gaming apps.
They also encourage parents to begin on-going conversations with their children, not only about predators but about their importance and value in this world.
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