Sexual Exploitation of Children on the Rise: The Regional Report for 2022
January 24, 2023
For the last two years, the Children’s Advocacy Centers for Cape Cod & the Islands, Bristol County and Plymouth County have collaborated to write an article during January, which is Human Trafficking Prevention Month. These articles have provided general information to raise awareness of this issues impacting our region. This year, our centers committed to provide specific and action-oriented information because regionally there has been a dramatic increase in referrals in 2022 with 420 children impacted in our region, a 40% increase since last year. Child Advocacy Centers (CACs) in Southeastern Massachusetts work collaboratively with every branch of law enforcement and child protective services to provide a coordinated response to the sexual exploitation and trafficking of children. Our communities are at a critical crossroads to stem the tide of exploitation happening to our youth. This report contains information our organizations believe our communities need to know.
Background and the Current Issue
Human trafficking is widely defined as “a crime that involves exploiting a person for labor, services, or commercial sex.” Massachusetts state law defines the trafficking of children as the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC). The CACs of Massachusetts recognize that CSEC occurs when a person under the age of 18 is offered, or given, something of value to them in exchange for some type of sexual act. It doesn’t have to be in person, and it doesn’t need to be money for it to be commercial sexual exploitation. Value could be anything to a child, this includes food, clothing, a warm place to sleep, better grades, vapes, alcohol, or other substances, a trip to a salon, or even a ride somewhere.
Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) is also considered a form of sexual exploitation and abuse. Often referred to as child pornography, CSAM is any photo, video, or visual image of a child under 18 engaged in sexual behavior or unclothed. CSAM is much more than photos and videos; it is a form of exploitation and abuse documented and shared across the internet in perpetuity. Every time an image is viewed, shared, paid for, or downloaded, the child is being revictimized and a crime has taken place.
In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic hit and resulted in billions of dollars being invested into updating internet-based systems access across the country. The purchase of internet-enabled devices skyrocketed due to families attending school and working from home. Even children attending preschool were provided internet-accessible devices to bring home.
With the lockdowns and impacts of remote learning, there was a limitation of in-person social interaction for children and teens. “Sexting” (sending sexually explicit text messages and images) became a social norm which continues to this day. At times, these images live right in personal devices of kids and teens, the place a parent would never suspect. Because of the rapid change of the virtual world intertwining with the real world, there has been no adjustment in the conversations about dating and sexual exploration. It is for these reasons that it is easy to understand how photos exchanged at one point mutually from attraction, can quickly be used for exploitation.
Because of the changes in social norms, and offenders navigating to online spaces, CSAM and online sexual exploitation of children have made up the vast majority of referrals in our region. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, reports of online exploitation rose by 35% between 2020 and 2021, and increased more than 73% from pre-pandemic levels.
The State of Our Region: Referrals on the Rise
Regionally, our centers have seen a surprising increase in online sexual exploitation. These referrals mirror that of national trends with a 40% increase. Of the 420 referrals, it included 355 female identified children, 63 male identified children and 2 transgender identified individuals. The range of ages for children impacted were from 5 years old to 17 years old and the distribution of these cases were that approximately 77% of these cases were individuals between 13 years old and 17 years old, and 23% were children who were 12 years old and younger.
This information has provided our centers with critical information and concern. Two key data points stand out: the rates of younger children (under 13 years old) being victimized online is on the rise, with several 5- to 8-year-old children included. Additionally, the number of male-identified youth referred for services has also increased. It is imperative our communities understand that sexual exploitation does not discriminate by age, gender identity, socioeconomic status, or sexual partner preference. These crimes against children are those of opportunity and cases have originated from nearly every town regardless of economic status or geographical location.
While case referrals on the Cape & Islands have remained consistent, there has been an uptick in cases in Plymouth and Bristol Counties, with most of those cases originating online. These regions also saw the largest spike of children under 13 being sexually exploited. Because of the increase in access and use of internet-enabled devices and rapidly changing norms for youth, these cases are happening faster and more frequently.
there has been a dramatic increase in referrals in 2022 with 420 children impacted in our region, a 40% increase since last year.”
Parents and Caregivers Can Be the Key to Prevention
Being a parent in the digital age is incredibly hard. The enmeshment of the online and real world has significantly limited a parent’s options of restricting internet access on their children’s devices. This comes with the added danger that if a child can access the internet, they are at risk of exploitation. Unfortunately, it is not practical for parents to remove internet-accessible devices altogether, which may be part of the reason these referrals are on the rise.
Cases of exploitation can take place on all internet accessible devices in the home. This includes video game consoles, school-based devices, and even apps associated with school use. If parents and caregivers don’t have regular conversations about safety, and monitor all internet-enabled devices, the opportunity for exploitation to happen in plain sight remains high.
It is important for parents to understand how to use the popular apps and platforms kids and teens are using. The most prominent apps where exploitation has taken place are TikTok, Snapchat, Discord, Instagram, and WhatsApp. Video livestreaming apps and platforms like Facetime, Zoom, Skype, or Omegle have also been increasingly used regionally for exploitation.
We recommend parents understand the privacy settings of these applications in order to increase the safety barrier between children and potential exploitation online. The organizations Common Sense Media and The Institute for Responsible Online and Cellphone Communication, provide information and resources for parents to learn about various programs, applications, and ways to reduce risk on child-accessible internet enabled devices. There are additional resources at the end of this article as well.
In some cases, children have been threatened to stay compliant due to the demands of an offender. It may be difficult for a child to come to a caregiver for help if they are fearful of the threats being made to them. Staying calm and knowing how to take action is crucial in helping a child who is a victim of online exploitation. The more parents and caregivers engage in their child’s online life, and discuss the risks of online sexual exploitation, the more likely children will confide in their parents when issues arise.
Sexual Exploitation: Here’s What to Look For
Here are some of the signs which are more closely related to abuse or exploitation. These include:
- Significant or sudden change in behavior
- Ceases engaging in social activities, hobbies, or friend groups
- Unexplained absences from school
- Regularly runs away from home, or goes missing from care, sometimes out of the area they live in
- Lies about their age and identity or has secret online profiles and cell phones
- Has profiles to dating sites used for adults
- Has material items inconsistent with the child’s access to money or socioeconomic status
- Has regular access to vapes, alcohol or other substances
- Has large amounts of cash, pre-paid cards, or hotel keys
- Deposits into bank accounts or online accounts
Be aware of the signs, sometimes one or several exist. Kids and teens have a knack for keeping things from their parents. This is why conversations between children and parents about online safety is critical.
Leave the Door Open for Conversations Without Judgment
It is important for kids and teens to know that if they make a mistake, they can have a calm non-judgmental conversation with their parents and ask for help. Children need to know that their parents will always believe in them, advocate for them, and put their health and safety first. Even if you do have these conversations with your children, there will likely still be fear that if they mess up and tell you they will get into trouble. Having ongoing and regular conversations about safety with kids and teens will help them feel supported and can provide reassurance which will increase their likelihood to ask for help.
As a parent, if your children do make a mistake and report that something happened to them, remain calm, and don’t take quick action like deleting images or messages. These may be important to effectively report and get help. Here are some specific action steps to take:
- Try to gather basic information, without pressing for too many details.
- Identify when and where this happened, where images are now, who may have them (we recommend parents do not view them), and what app/platform it was on.
- Contact your local police department and reach out to your local Children’s Advocacy Center for guidance.
- If you see or suspect child sexual abuse material online on social media, you can report it to NCMEC through their Cyber Tipline.
You don’t need to know who an exploiter is, what’s important is that you make the report.
How Our Communities Can Make a Difference
While the topic of sexual exploitation and abuse of children is complicated and can feel overwhelming, anyone make a difference. Everyone can do their part to raise awareness of this issue. Reach out to your local Children’s Advocacy Center and ask how you can learn more about the issue, or request a training for your local community, school, non-profit organization, or business. If you have concerns that a child is being exploited, please report suspicious behaviors to your local Child Advocacy Center, law enforcement agency or file a report with the Department of Children and Families.
Together we can create a community where children are free of abuse, have a voice that is heard, and where they enjoy healthy, safe, and empowered lives.
Below are a series of links which may help you navigate safety online with your children.