“STOLEN” is a year-long NBC 7 investigation into the sex trafficking and exploitation of children in San Diego County. The seven-episode documentary series is told from the perspective of survivors, advocates -- even traffickers, and sex buyers, explaining the depth and scope of this problem in our communities and our schools. And with more children online during the coronavirus pandemic, experts say they are at greater risk of exploitation now more than ever. “STOLEN” celebrates the strength of survivors and their families, as they struggle to free themselves from the bonds of sex trafficking. See the full series here.
The novel coronavirus pandemic has impacted nearly every aspect of society. In particular, it has aided in the rise of sex trafficking on national and global levels.
Providing the fuel for the increase in sex trafficking during the pandemic: the internet, where traffickers are turning to the use of web cams and chat rooms to exploit their victims.
“One in five kids online are sexually propositioned through gaming platforms and other social media. And those, non-contact oriented forums of sexual exploitation are increasing,” said Brian Ulicny, a researcher for Thomson-Reuters who co-wrote a recent study looking at human trafficking during the pandemic in conjunction with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Computational Law Program.
“We saw activities that have the potential for being exploitative; the webcamming sites, and sites where people offer sexually explicit material. They all showed an increase in the number of posts or providers during the coronavirus lockdown,” added Ulicny.
Ulicny and his fellow researchers found that the economic hardship from the shutdown has forced pimps and exploiters to turn to the internet as a source of cash.
But economic turmoil is not the only issue fueling the increase in sex trafficking during COVID-19. Ulicny says because schools and other programs have shuttered, victims have fewer places to turn to report the exploitation and there are fewer chances for the abuse to be recognized.
“Social interactions that children have with people who might be able to intervene or potentially see red flags have dropped. So the potential for exploitation certainly grew during that period," he explained.
The FBI agrees.
In March 2020, as the virus was spreading throughout the country, the FBI issued a warning to parents regarding the presence of sexual predators on the internet.
“Due to school closings as a result of COVID-19, children will potentially have an increased online presence and/or be in a position that puts them at an inadvertent risk,” read the FBI warning. “Due to this newly developing environment, the FBI is seeking to warn parents, educators, caregivers, and children about the dangers of online sexual exploitation and signs of child abuse.”
There are other signs that the pandemic has put more children at risk.
From January through June 2020, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported a more than 90% increase in the number of reports it received of “online enticement” and calls made into its Cyber TipLine reporting child abuse compared to the year before.
So what, if anything, can be done to prevent the online spread of sex trafficking?
Ulicny said in many cases, prevention can begin at home.
“There needs to be better parent parental controls,” said Ulicny. “For the most part, I don't think parents really have any sense about who's interacting with their kids online. And, the platforms don't provide many tools for parents to be able to understand who their children are dealing with.”