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Blogs and Opinion Online grooming and child sexual exploitation in the U.S.

Online grooming and child sexual exploitation in the U.S.

Since the Covid pandemic and lockdowns, anti-trafficking non-profit Hope for Justice has been dealing with more and more cases of child sexual exploitation in the U.S. that have either begun online or happened solely online.

To demonstrate how prevalent it is, investigators from Hope for Justice created a fake Instagram profile using a stock photo of a teenage girl. In less than 48 hours, among the messages the account received were three from people who appeared to be older males, all wanting to chat privately via direct message, and all quickly moving the conversation in a sexual direction – even once they were told they were speaking with someone under 18.

These conversations escalated quickly to: age, location, photos/videos, what they wanted, promises of care, privacy and isolation (secrets). All the men were told that this minor currently lives at home with her mother; however, this didn’t curb the direction of the conversations. There was talk of meeting up and even moving to meet this person.

This turned into an active investigation and intelligence collection case. Two of the three males were identified, and law enforcement took over.

IMPORTANT: Hope for Justice investigators are all trained former law enforcement officers and are licensed private investigators. This exercise was carefully monitored and the results shared with law enforcement. Hope for Justice strongly recommends against members of the public attempting anything similar, for their own safety and the safety of others.

Hope for Justice’s U.S. Program Director, Sarah Butler, was formerly the lead human trafficking prosecutor for Nashville, TN. In her final year in that role, 90% of human trafficking prosecutions, on investigation, originated online in some form.

We are seeing an increase in potential predators using gaming-related apps. Hope for Justice has worked specific exploitation cases involving Discord and via Xbox’s own messaging system. Our investigators are also concerned that newer technologies like deepfake videos images, plus AI chatbots based on large language models, are going to further exacerbate these issues. This is a rapidly evolving threat to children, who are vulnerable to online blackmail and making choices that make their situation worse (for example, “share 5 more photos with me or I’ll share this one with your friends/teacher”).

Tech companies have a responsibility to tackle this, and it is important that parents educate and equip themselves.

A great way to do this is through Hope for Justice’s Keeping Kids Safe In The Digital World introductory e-learning course, which you can do in your own time.

Research and statistics about online grooming and online child sexual exploitation

  • Globally, over five billion people are estimated to own a mobile device, and over 65% of the world’s population uses the Internet. Nearly 90% of Americans use the Internet at least occasionally, and 77% own a smartphone. Among younger people, this approaches 100%. (Lindsay B. Gezinski & Kwynn M. Gonzalez-Pons (2022) Sex Trafficking and Technology: A Systematic Review of Recruitment and Exploitation, Journal of Human Trafficking, DOI: 10.1080/23322705.2022.2034378)
  • National Center for Missing & Exploited Children estimates that 88% of their 9,800 reports of child sex trafficking each year involve a child being trafficked online (same source as above)
  • Only 49% of minors and 54% of adults disclose online exploitation or online sexual extortion to family or friends. Even fewer reported to authorities: 18% of minors, 23% of adults reported it to websites or apps, and 13% of minors and 15% of adults reporting to the police. Reasons for not disclosing or reporting were feelings of shame, embarrassment, fear of retribution, or a sense that it simply would not do any good. Overall, one in three victims did not tell anyone else about their experience with sextortion. (Wendy A. Walsh & Dr. Dafna Tener (2022) “If you don’t send me five other pictures I am going to post the photo online”: A qualitative analysis of experiences of survivors of sextortion, Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 31:4, 447-465)
  • F.B.I.’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (2021) reported a 99.95% increase in internet-based crimes against children online in 2022 compared to 2019.
  • Research suggests the age range targeted most heavily by online predators is girls aged 12-14, due to perceived vulnerability and openness to suggestion from older males (Tidball, Sriyani; Zheng, Mingying; and Creswell, John W., “Buying Sex On-Line from Girls: NGO Representatives, Law Enforcement Officials, and Public Officials Speak out About Human Trafficking—A Qualitative Analysis” (2016).)
  • The use of technology for the purpose of the sex trafficking was identified by 70.4% of respondents who reported having been sex trafficked in one 2018 study. Most common methods and platforms used at that time were: smartphone 35.2%; 29.6%; Facebook 22.2%; Snapchat 14.8%; Craigslist 9.3%; Twitter 9.3%; Instagram 7.4%; Tumblr 3.7%; Paypal 3.7%; Bitcoin 3.7%; Tinder 1.9%.
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