Technology's Role in DMST

A survey result published in 2018 by Thorn in a partnership with Dr. Vanessa Bouché at Texas Christian University offers valuable insight into the role of social media platforms and internet usage in domestic minor sex trafficking (Thorn, 2018). In the survey, survivors discussed their experiences and shed light on what role technology plays in a victim’s recruitment into domestic minor sex trafficking (DMST). Two hundred and sixty survivors of DMST, through 24 survivor organizations, encompassing fourteen states completed the survey. 1 out of 6 respondents trafficked under the age of 12 and 75% who entered "the life" after 2004 were advertised online. The emergence of two key concepts was of paramount importance. First, technology is heightening the grooming and controlling of victims by traffickers. Secondly, less familiar forms of DMST surfaced; i.e., trafficking by family members, no clearly defined trafficker.

A persistent theme present in all kinds of DMST observed was everyday experiences of childhood abuse and neglect. This finding supports a Florida study, conducted between 2009 and 2015. The 2017 study found that trafficking abuse reports were highest amongst children with adverse childhood experiences (ACE) score of six or higher. Children with a history of sexual abuse in correlation with a higher ACE score had a higher likelihood of being exploited by traffickers (Reid, Baglivio, Piquero, Greenwald, & Epps, 2017).

The Thorn survey further revealed the fact that a deficiency in the feeling of a connection with others leads to an increase in a vulnerability which is a critical factor in recruitment, control, and recovery of DMST survivors. This vulnerability factor coupled with the availability of the internet and cellular technology impacts how victims get recruited and exploited. The ability to stay connected to someone, regardless of time or location, is a matter worthy of exploration.

Lack of a stable support structure, a real sense of a family connection, sociability with peers on a consistent basis all lead to a feeling of a disconnect with society and a need to seek out an alternative to bridge this gap. Accessibility of social media platforms, chat rooms, the promise of a "happening party" all pose a risk to vulnerable youth on their quest to fill this void. To erase the feelings of inadequacy, failure to fit in, be accepted, get noticed. No longer forgotten, invisible, broken, discarded. A trafficker, Romeo pimp, waiting to capitalize on this vulnerability, this disconnect, stepping in to promote a long-lasting relationship filled with hope and promise for a way out, a connection. A sense of self-worth, purpose, better life only to discover anything but waiting for them as they become entangled in the web of the control of a trafficker.

How do we erase this vulnerability factor and protect our children? Awareness is a crucial first step. Outreach related to the potential hazards of social media platforms, chat rooms, gaming apps, and other activities used to promote a sense of connection with others that could predispose a person to a trafficking situation. Fostering a sense of connectivity, hope and promise with our "un-kids"- a description by Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic representative of the scores of children in our community who may have no connection to us by bloodline but represent the collective potential of future generations (Bayless, 2014).

Ana Stevenson