In the Know: A Survivor's Perspective

It's time for our November edition of In The Know: A Survivor's Perspective. This one is for all you parents out there, and it comes from Lexie Smith. We hope you will take the time to read it and learn how to protect your kids.

Three ways traffickers are targeting teens online and how to protect them.

Teens spend an average of 7.5 hours online. Although adults are no better, with an average of 8.5, there is a significant difference in vulnerability to predators online due to a normal process called "self-identity formation."

There’s a normal period of time for tweens and teens to begin trying to figure out who they are and what they want to be known for. It’s a very insecure time, as they seek the approval of everyone they meet to confirm they are loved, valued and belong in their community. If there are perceived rejections, they will outsource those needs. During this very important stage of development of the self, students are at very high risk for recruitment through social media.

There are several reasons for this beyond wanting to be liked and well accepted in a group of peers. One of these is a physiological underdevelopment in the brain. Science has revealed that the brain is not fully developed physically until age 21, and inner connections may not be complete until age 25. The slow-growing part of the brain is also one of the most important, because it’s the area in which we make decisions, weigh outcomes, manage emotions and impulses. This area is called the prefrontal cortex, and it is the remote control to your brain. The brain of a teenager is like using a remote control with a poor signal to your TV. You may mash buttons 20 times, move your arm at different angles, and even get up to finally have your TV receive the commands from the remote.

When your teen does something ridiculous, and you ask "what were you thinking," and they can’t find better words than "I don't know," they are truly being honest. Their brain doesn't know what it’s doing yet, and that’s why they need you as a parent to help their brain signal become stronger by consistently teaching them how to think critically. This part of parenting is just as important as potty training and teaching your little ones to take care of themselves independently. Although your child is pretty self sufficient by age 10, he/she still needs your help for protection … especially from online predators.

Social media and apps have become the new playground of traffickers and their recruiting targets -- your kids. Now that you understand a little more about the teenage brain, you’ll be able to see how easy it is for traffickers to use social media in quickly swaying your sons and daughters into their arms. The following are three elements of most of the apps on your children's phone or tablet that traffickers use to target their next victim, and we, therefore, need to get ahead of them by teaching boundaries, having open conversations, and making sure you understand the technology, so you’ll know how to continue parenting.

1) Privacy setting and perceived safety. Privacy settings can make many apps more secure, but many students don’t utilize these settings which can protect them. Instead, most students put entirely too much information on their profiles -- phone numbers, personal emails, age or year born, attended school, address, or any other identifying information. A lot of this seems obvious, but when teens are signing up for something they want and personal information is requested, they tend to give it, believing it’s required. Teens also tend to not make their profiles private, because they want a lot of followers. In their mind, each follower is like a high five to their ego and identity. It is confirming that they are well liked. In a world full of rejection, controversy, and bullying, many teens simply want to be a welcoming friend to anyone who needs one. Unfortunately, not everyone shares this kind of heart. A good rule of thumb is if the person is not known in real life, there is no reason to be friends with them online. Information that you would not share with someone sitting across the table from you should not be shared through the perceived safety of a computer screen. It’s easy to feel safe enough to open up online, but you can never predict the intentions of the person receiving that information and how he/she might use it. You also will never get an authentic response when there is time to think and type back. If you only know someone through typed conversations, you don't really know them at all.

Parent Resolution: Talk to your teens about how predators can use their information. Speak in real life scenarios, so they can piece together how easy it is to be targeted by a local predator looking for a specific aged teen if they are announcing that information to the world.

If your teen is struggling with something they don't feel comfortable talking about to you or anyone you both know, hire a therapist, find a support group or a mentor, whose job it is to listen, support and come alongside your teen. That is what they’re looking for when they’re reaching out to others online: love, support, acceptance, and belonging.

2) Turn location services off. Most apps use location services to connect users who are close to one another. That is the primary function of any dating app, and a special feature in most apps. For example, most people don’t realize that Periscope, a popular broadcasting app powered by Twitter, not only tells people what city you’re broadcasting from, but it enables anyone to zoom in on your exact location. By exact, I mean exact. I can tell exactly what house someone is broadcasting from when their location services are on. In the context of predators, location services make it really easy for anyone to be stalked -- especially if every moment is posted somewhere. Anyone could follow someone’s social media with location services on, show up, and “accidentally” bump into their target. To a teen who has been talking to a guy she likes online, or even at their school, it seems a little bit like fate to continually ‘bump into’ their crush.

Parent Resolution: Delete all dating apps and turn off locations services on every app. Posting photos late is also a good idea to prevent becoming someone’s target as well as being present in the moment. Memory banks last longer and remain more vivid than any photo we can ever take or status we can ever post.

3) Online dating and texting apps. Online dating might be appropriate if you’ve graduated from college and are an adult seeking a life partner, but there is simply no reason for a teen to have dating apps like tinder, zoosk, badoo, and many others. There are also many texting or communication apps that can be used without a phone plan if the device is connected to wifi that teens have been known to use like kik, imessage, snapchat and many others. Even though teens have access to eligible peers to date, technology has created “the grass is always greener on the other side” syndrome. The peers within one’s own community aren’t good enough, so they search nationwide for the perfect boyfriend or girlfriend. Well, guess who else is lurking, reading their status updates, sending them silly pictures, and starting a friendly conversation with them to get the door open -- predators like traffickers. Most victims identified their trafficker as a romantic interest or someone they knew. The method coined “boyfriending” is the most common tactic to recruiting, and relationships through technology move a lot faster than ones in person, due to what I call “screen security.” I mentioned earlier the phenomena that happens when two people are communicating miles away through a screen. It feels safe. In fact, it feels so safe that we are significantly more likely to give more information and express deeper hidden parts of our self. That type of bonding from screen to screen gives a false sense of intimacy.  

Parent Resolution: Discourage online relationships. Encourage your kids to date locally, and allow your home to be an open one to conversations about romance. The more your teens feel accepted and loved, regardless of their decisions, the more they will share with you. If they feel you will only get angry or not understand, they will hide as much as possible.


I know this was a long blog, but I hope that it was informative and helpful. Feel free to check out my website for specific safety reviews and crash courses in the most popular apps. I am also more than happy to answer any questions you have. To contact me or get more information, please visit www.lexiesmith.com

Bio: Lexie is more than a survivor of childhood sexual exploitation. She is a college graduate with a degree in psychology from Lee University. Her expertise was witnessed by America on A&E’s original intervention series 8 Minutes. Lexie has shared her story with over 40,000 American students and currently serves on staff with Rescue 1 Global as their prevention coordinator as a missionary. She spends her days educating community members and responding to law enforcement calls for advocacy of newly recovered survivors. Her expertise can also be heard on American Crossroads Radio, a nationally syndicated radio station, for a one-hour segment called Finding Freedom. She also serves on Rebecca Bender Ministries speaker’s team.

Bio: Lexie is more than a survivor of childhood sexual exploitation. She is a college graduate with a degree in psychology from Lee University. Her expertise was witnessed by America on A&E’s original intervention series 8 Minutes. Lexie has shared her story with over 40,000 American students and currently serves on staff with Rescue 1 Global as their prevention coordinator as a missionary. She spends her days educating community members and responding to law enforcement calls for advocacy of newly recovered survivors. Her expertise can also be heard on American Crossroads Radio, a nationally syndicated radio station, for a one-hour segment called Finding Freedom. She also serves on Rebecca Bender Ministries speaker’s team.