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Keeping Children Safe Online

Human trafficking thrives online – and children remain particularly vulnerable. 

When young people place content such as photos, texts, and personal details online, it enters the public domain and becomes accessible to anyone – including human traffickers. Predators actively stalk online meetings places such as chat rooms and social media to lure their victims, using posted materials to contact, groom, blackmail, or otherwise recruit and monitor victims.[1]

Children seldom understand this danger. 

Advocates and law-enforcement report increasing online exploitation of children, who are accessing the internet at increasingly younger ages. Simultaneously, constant technological development outpaces safety best practices. The most recent 2021 National Human Trafficking Hotline (NHTH) analysis identified online-facilitated exploitation as two out of the top five venues for sex trafficking, including of children.[2] 


The Rise in Online Trafficking of Child

While policies enacted since 2018 impose penalties on online marketplaces knowingly facilitating human trafficking, exploitation through apps and social media platforms is more difficult to detect and deter. As a result, social media – including Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp, and dating sites/apps – drives recent spikes in online trafficking.[3] 

For instance, anti-human trafficking nonprofit, Exodus Road, reports 76% of their trafficking cases involved social media in 2022.[4]

Social media contributes to the proliferation of child sexual abuse material (CSAM), the sexually explicit depiction of minors. Disturbingly, 87 million files of suspected CSAM were reported in 2022 – up from 450,000 in 2004. Half of the children were prepubescent.[5] 

The Department of Justice summarizes the reason for this CSAM spike:

Modern smartphones are the ideal child exploitation tool for offenders, as they can be used to photograph, record, or watch live child sexual abuse; store CSAM on the device; access CSAM stored remotely; connect with victims and other offenders; and distribute and receive CSAM, through an endless variety of applications. The device itself and the applications often cloak this criminal activity with encryption.[6]

This exploitation takes numerous forms.

  • Live Streaming. Technology allows offenders to purchase livestreamed child sexual abuse from facilitators anywhere in the world. 
  • Solicitation. Traffickers utilize public information and online applications to approach and deliberately groom children for sexual exploitation. They may solicit nude selfies or sexualized imagery, convince children to meet in person and engage in sex of labor trafficking*, or even manipulate children into “loving” relationships that quickly turn exploitative. (See our post on the Boyfriend Model of Sex Trafficking for more information.)
  • Sextortion. Texting, social media, and online hacking makes acquiring and sharing sexually explicit images dangerously easy. An individual may threaten to expose another person’s explicit images unless they meet specific demands, a practice known as “sextortion.” This can occur in a previously consensual relationship.
  • Employment deception. Traffickers target vulnerable individuals with deceptive job opportunities online, manipulating them into physical danger and financial entrapment. 
  • Artificial Intelligence. Traffickers have begun using AI software to turn a single CSAM image into hundreds of scenes depicting harm to children.


Tips to Protect Children Online

Advocates, parents, technology leaders, and policymakers have been intensely debating the best way to protect children online, including using the power of innovative technology to prevent instead of promote abuse.

Pending legislation has the potential to increase online protections. The Kids Online Safety Act [7] would equip policymakers to assess social media platforms’ efforts to minimize risks to children. This includes product design features giving parental controls, options to protect information and modify algorithms, and mandatory independent audits of these platforms. It is supported by more than 200 organizations. 

But communities and families don’t have to wait for legislation.

Online safety best practices for both adults and for parents to implement with their children include the following[8]: 

  • Set strict privacy settings and don’t overshare. Public social media accounts allow anyone to see photos, posts, and personal information – information traffickers have used to contact and recruit victims. Set user profiles to private, turn off location sharing on posts, be conservative in what you post, and never share personal information online (e.g. full names, schools, addresses, phone numbers, or user passwords).
  • Only accept connections from people you know. Traffickers reach out via social media chats and systematically build trust with the potential victim. A “friend” is not always a friend, so know with whom you are chatting and never meet in person with someone you met online.
  • Beware of advertisements. Traffickers often use catchy language in online job advertisements, promising high wages for simple work or a chance to become a model. They will have vague company credentials, details, and employment terms. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is and should be avoided.
  • Block and report suspected abuse. Don’t hesitate to unfriend, block, or report harassing or discomfiting individuals. Stay vigilant in the online sphere and report suspicious pages or activities to law enforcement, a trusted adult, and/or NHTH or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).
    • Take screenshots of disturbing messages or posts; they might be useful later for an investigation.
  • Know the warning signs of trafficking. Being aware of red flags can help you identify when you or a loved one is at risk of being groomed or recruited online


Talking to Children about Online Danger

Child internet safety begins with parents facilitating ongoing, age-appropriate conversation  

With their children. In addition to implementing the tools listed above and the resources listed below, parents can follow these general guidelines to facilitate healthy, preventative conversations as soon as children start using internet-connected devices.[9] 

  • Lay the groundwork. First, educating yourself about online platforms, threats, and tools will enable you to plan conversations and readily, confidently respond as situations or topics arise. 
    • Begin by discussing body autonomy with children as young as four years old.
    • Gradually layer more mature topics, from appropriate online interactions, to technical safety features, to explicit conversations about exploitation, sexual health, and balancing privacy and safety.   
  • Establish guidelines. For younger children, this may mean using their phones in a shared space and seeking permission before downloading new apps. As children age, explaining the threats of each app and setting privacy settings together can create shared understanding and trust.
  • Invite conversations and remain calm. Advocates recommend admitting the conversation may be uncomfortable and embrace everyday experiences as prompts for low-stress conversation. 
    • To build trust and perpetuate conversations, avoid overreacting (especially since children may test parents) and accusatory or threatening language. 
    • Instead, use welcoming body language, listen intently, and respond with open-ended comments when discussing online dangers or current problematic situations.  
  • Empower your children. Often, children avoid seeking help because they feel ashamed, especially if threatened with sextortion. Assure children they shouldn’t feel ashamed or embarrassed. Further, discussing and demonstrating healthy relationship dynamics can equip children to better categorize threats and mistreatment. 
  • Utilize resources. Age-appropriate resources can help you navigate discussions, clearly explain the dangers, and implement basic safety tools.



Innovative technology increasingly protects against exploitation. Dark web monitoring algorithms, whistleblowing tools, and traceability advances increasingly monitor and disrupt human trafficking worldwide. Technology such as Safer equips content-hosting platforms to detect and prevent CSAM. 

Everyday tools also exist for parents and youth to prevent, report, and dialogue about online exploitation.

By remaining informed and vigilant, social media and the internet can become a place of connection and increasing protection, bringing survivors and advocates together instead of proliferating exploitation.



* Commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) – the buying and selling of children for a sexual act – is the preferred term for this sex trafficking of children, as minors cannot legally engage in prostitution. 

[1] “Online Safety,” Department of Homeland Security (2022).

[2] “2021 National Human Trafficking Hotline Data Report,” National Human Trafficking Hotline (2023).

[3] “Human Trafficking and Social Media,” Polaris. 

[4] Laura Parker, “In Defense of the Kids Online Safety Act: Protecting Children in the Digital Age,” Exodus Road (Sept. 18, 2023).

[5] “How Tech Enables the Spread of CSAM,” Thorn.

[6] “Child Sexual Abuse Material,” U.S. Department of Justice (2023).

[7] Senate Bill 1409, 118th United States Congress.

[8] “Technology and Human Trafficking: Avoid the Trap!” United Nations.

[9] “Internet Safety,” Shared Hope International; “Be Your Kid’s Safety Net,” Thorn; “Talking to Your Child About Online Safety,” NSPCC.

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