Kids live their lives online these days, and while schools are closed, many will spend even more time on the computer, studying or surfing the web — and potentially becoming targets for predators and traffickers.

Every nonessential business has moved to an online platform, which shows just how well the world can adapt in a couple of days to continue business as normal via the internet, said Faith Larson, director of advocacy for Unbound Houston, an organization dedicated to fighting human trafficking.

But it’s a double-edged sword, she said.

“Predators are equally adapting just as fast to the changing landscape,” she said.

During this time of social distancing, Unbound is one of the organizations that has adapted to doing business online — and in the interest of keeping kids safe, will offer a free virtual seminar at 7 p.m. and again at 9:30 p.m. Monday to share information about how traffickers and predators operate, along with tools and resources to protect kids.

“This honestly is a predator’s dream, for kids to be spending all day on their devices,” said Christa Mayfield, Unbound’s director of Prevention Education.

It’s not necessarily that the risk of sex trafficking specifically will increase, but the risk for kids being targeted by online predators will increase, she said. Being online creates the opportunity for predators to make an initial contact and start building that connection, Mayfield said.

Connection is something kids need right now — especially from family members, which can help protect them, Larson said.

“Right now, our kids need connection from us more than anything. The more disconnected they feel from us — that’s when things start becoming secretive,” Larson said.

If parents notice their child becoming secretive about their phone or wanting to spend more time in their room with a device, they should ask the child what’s going on, without judgment or punishment, Mayfield said. It’s easy for parents to chalk it up to “kids these days” being so sucked into technology or addicted to their phones — while having no idea their child is being groomed or exploited, she said.

If a child ends up in a situation where they’ve been communicating with an online predator, the first step is to break off contact — stop talking and stop replying, Mayfield said. The next step depends on the nature of the content shared, she said. Criminal activity, including any explicit photos or text messages exchanged, should be saved and taken to the police for investigation, she said.

“It’s really important that parents don’t immediately delete things like that because that’s gonna be necessary to make the case so that that predator isn’t going after more kids,” Mayfield said.

Even kids who are not on social media sites can stumble on a dark corner of the internet while doing research or watching videos on YouTube for a school assignment, Mayfield said.

That includes pornography, she said.

“We know that already happens — a kid will come across pornography accidentally while looking up a shortcut for a video game or doing homework online,” Mayfield said.

While she does not have data on that, Mayfield bases that belief on past trends, she said.

“If it’s not being recruited or targeted by a predator, the likelihood of them encountering pornography, even accidentally, is very high,” she said. “By the time kids have access to technology, they’re gonna see pornography for the first time.”

Parents should have conversations with their kids early — even as young as 5 or 6 years old — to let them know that if they encounter something that makes them uncomfortable, they should talk to somebody about it, Mayfield said. It’s also important for parents to know not only what apps their kids have on their devices and what those apps are for, but also how people are using them, she said.

“(Parents) can get really caught up in ‘This is a good app; this is a bad app,’” Mayfield said. “The app is not the problem — it’s humans, and how the app is being used.”

Parents should also sit down with their kids and establish, as a family, a social media plan, such as not being alone in the bedroom with a device or technology time ends at 8 p.m. every night, Mayfield said.

“Whatever that is — as a family, coming up with some kind of understanding and letting kids have the buy-in — not just be told, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that’ — but be taught why, and get to have a say in that process,” she said.

Larson is mom to a 4-year-old son and agrees having those buy-in talks with the child is important.

For children to know to go to their parents if they see something online that makes them uncomfortable — “that’s something that kids don’t inherently know to do,” Larson said. “That takes a lot of upfront work from parents.”

To sign up for the webinar, visit 248632333.

Corinna Richardson is the features writer for The Facts. Contact her at 979-237-0150.

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