By: Jamie Beck
I was scrolling through Instagram the other night when a TikTok video caught my eye. It was a video of a young girl, she couldn’t have been more than 12 years old, wearing a very sexy outfit saying “small waist, pretty face, with a big bank.” It was my human trafficking training that made me take a closer look at this video. When I looked more closely, I noticed the hashtag #BigBankChallenge. When I clicked the hashtag, it took me to over 8,600 more videos of girls and boys of all ages doing the same thing. I googled the hashtag and found countless more videos and pictures on YouTube, Twitter and TikTok.
If you have middle or high school age kids, they may be participating in this generation’s idea of an online “competition” without you having any idea. Young kids, mostly girls, are posting short videos of themselves scantily clad on social media apps saying “small waist, pretty face, with a big bank” as they pull up their shirts to show their waist and then turn around and shake their booty. Kids may see this as a fun thing to do while bored at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
I soon discovered another “challenge” called the #SilhouetteChallenge also known as “put your hand on my shoulder” where people remix Doja Cat’s song “Streets” with “Put Your Head on My Shoulder” by Paul Anka. They combine the remix with a red filter and silhouette of themselves — usually without much clothing. There’s even instructions on how to do the #SilhouetteChallenge for those who want to join in but don’t know how.
These are just two examples of these online competitions. Who knows how many similar competitions are out there? You can tell by looking at the backgrounds of those participating that they are mostly kids and teenagers — you can see a nice house they are too young to afford or a kid’s bedroom.
When I see these videos, all I see is easy prey for traffickers. In my job as an attorney for human trafficking survivors at Free to Thrive, I’ve heard hundreds of stories of survivors, many of whom were first recruited into sex trafficking on social media. Young girls posting sexy pictures of themselves on social media is exactly what will catch the attention of an online predator.
Just one story of the countless I have heard over the years involves a survivor named Tiffany, who first met her trafficker on Instagram when she was in her late teens. He contacted her saying they had a mutual friend on Instagram. He told her she was beautiful, he would like to take her out on a date, he wanted to be her boyfriend. He liked her photos, left comments, encouraged her to continue sharing photos of herself. He took her on dates, bought her nice gifts and seemed to be a good guy. She quickly fell in love with him.
A few months into dating, he flipped the switch. He said his car broke down and he needed help with money to pay for the repairs. She was young and didn’t know how to help. He said he knew a way she could make some quick cash, he’d arrange everything. When she declined, he beat her into submission. He ended up trafficking her for nearly three years. Every time she tried to escape from him, he’d threaten to “out” her to her family and friends on social media. They had no idea what she was doing and didn’t want anyone to find out, so she stayed with him.
One day, she secretly looked at his cell phone. When she opened his Instagram app, she was horrified to discover conversations with dozens of women and girls where he was trying to lure them in and exploit them, just like he did to her.
COVID-19 has created the perfect storm for online predators. The pandemic has exacerbated so many challenges faced by parents — ensuring your kids get a good education, keeping them healthy and safe, ensuring they are developing relationships with other kids, limiting screen time and protecting them from internet predators — to name a few. All this while trying to work from home or work outside of the home while your kids are home with little or no supervision.
While parents are exhausted, distracted and simply trying to survive this pandemic, internet predators are stealthily grooming children online to exploit them. Tips of online recruitment of children reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children nearly doubled from 6.3 million in the first half of 2019 to 12 million through June of 2020.
Online predators are skilled at finding kids to prey upon online. Young girls posting sexy pictures and videos of themselves is one of the many things these predators are scrolling social media looking for. Predators also look for kids who are lonely, unhappy or in abusive homes on social media and gaming apps. They then befriend these kids and groom them through feigned friendship or love. Children trapped in abusive homes during the pandemic are particularly vulnerable to online recruitment and exploitation.
This article is not intended to scare parents, but rather inform you and provide tools to help you protect your children. In the case of online predators — ignorance is dangerous.
We need to talk to our kids about internet safety. When we were kids, our parents told us not to get into cars with strangers. Now, we need to teach our kids not to trust strangers they meet online. We need to have age-appropriate conversations with our kids so they understand that just because someone is a “friend” online, that does not mean they are a friend in real life. They need to know not to share any personal information with strangers (or “friends”) they meet online and to never meet up with anyone they meet online without talking to you first.
This is not a one-time conversation, but should be a topic regularly discussed with your kids. Not in an accusatory way, but rather in casual conversation. If you start these conversations when your kids are young, you will educate them before they become teenagers and no longer want to talk to you about these things. Ask your kids about who their social media and gaming app friends are and what they discuss with them. Ask them if they ever ask them personal questions and how they respond.
Do not get upset with your kids if they tell you something that scares you. Rather, use it as a learning opportunity and tell them they can always talk to you about these things. Remember, if you get upset with your kids when they confide in you, they won’t tell you next time.
There’s also a great new app called Radlee to help parents protect their kids from online predators. Radlee uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) to analyze public photos, comments, hashtags, likes and other aspects of your child’s public Instagram account to detect risky and suspicious activity. Radlee identifies common predatory tactics and the types of posts that attract the attention of an online predator and sends a summary to parents so they can identify the concerning posts and accounts.
It’s also important to note that even if you follow your kids’ social media accounts, they have Finstas or fake Instagram and other social media accounts. The fact that kids have found a way around their parents makes it all the more important to educate them about internet safety — watching their accounts simply won’t cut it.
Knowledge is power. Now that you know this is a thing, you can have informed conversations with the kids in your life about who they are talking to online and the kinds of things they are posting online to protect them from online predators.
Jamie Beck is the President and Managing Attorney of Free to Thrive, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that provides legal services and other support to human trafficking survivors.