Sex Traffickers Using TikTok To Lure Children, Youth Therapist Warns

 Authored by J.M. Phelps via The Epoch Times (emphasis ours),

TikTok may be providing opportunities for sex traffickers to groom children, a youth therapist has warned.
Sex Traffickers Using TikTok To Lure Children, Youth Therapist Warns
The TikTok app's logo seen on a mobile phone screen in an illustration taken on Feb. 21, 2019. (Danish Siddiqui/Illustration/Reuters)

Dr. Katie Guinn has spent the last 10 years providing in-home family therapy to young people and their families in the Acadiana region of Louisiana. She is the regional director of The Center for Children and Families, a nonprofit organization that provides advocacy, counseling, and other services for families in need.

The need for mental health services among young people has skyrocketed in the last two years, according to Guinn, who said that she is encountering more and more children who have been victims of sex trafficking. In providing a definition of the term, she said that “sex trafficking involves engaging in sexual activities against the will of a person for an exchange of goods.” The transaction is not always associated with money, but can also include drugs, food, or shelter, for example.

As a result of the COVID pandemic, Guinn said a relatively new concept has emerged, which she called “cybersex trafficking.” The goal of luring children and adults into sex trafficking remains the same, but in this approach, she said, “everything is virtual.” Websites and a variety of phone apps with messaging capabilities are utilized to communicate with users, who are often minors.

Victims and participants can upload content, like photographs or videos, and a transaction occurs using cryptocurrency. According to Guinn, “This new realm of sex trafficking is incredibly difficult to track and learn more about because it constantly and instantly evolves.

What is known, she said, is that children are particularly vulnerable. “For a child or another victim to be susceptible to sex trafficking,” Guinn said, “there first has to be a vulnerability.” A vulnerability can be defined as “something missing in a child’s life that needs to be filled.” This void or need can come in many forms, she explained. “It can be connection, survival, love, substance abuse, shelter, food, stability, and more.

“In the last three years,” Guinn said, “the biggest need we have seen in children is connection, [as] kids have been incredibly isolated as a result of the pandemic.” She identified connection as a human need that is as significant for a child as eating or breathing. “People need connection, especially children,” she said.

Groomed on TikTok

Social media has become a primary means for people to connect. According to Guinn, however, all avenues of social media can be used for contacting and potentially recruiting victims for sex trafficking, including Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. But TikTok—a hugely popular Chinese-owned app—is the “most aggressive,” she said, explaining that “TikTok’s algorithm is incredibly aggressive and customizable to the user.

“The app tracks how much time is spent using it, how a user engages with a video, whether it be by sharing it, commenting on it, or liking it, and determines what videos will show up next on the user’s feed,” she explained. “It’s the user’s interaction with the video that determines their customized algorithm.

Traffickers will make videos, posts, or different kinds of content which talk about the lifestyle of sex trafficking very openly and blatantly,” Guinn said. “They glamorize it, making it very desirable for a child who is lacking so much. They’ll show such things as women at parties, enjoying drinking, eating, and flaunting expensive gifts, for example. For a kid, this all looks very enticing.”

Once a child watches a attractive video, she said, “the TikTok algorithm is going to shuffle similar videos to share more of that content to the child user, further glamorizing a very dangerous lifestyle.”

It’s part of the larger process that “naturally starts to fill a vulnerability,” Guinn said. “A child could become more incentivized to message the person responsible for the video, to make contact with this person in hopes to partake in this lifestyle they observed, and get their needs met.

Inadvertently, they could easily become part of the realm of sex trafficking, simply with the intention of getting their needs met, but often times, [they are not] able to find a way out,” she warned.

“TikTok provides constant exposure to things kids never would have been exposed to, [and] it can reduce sensitivity, normalize behavior, and potentially make a child more susceptible to being approached by traffickers. These traffickers are trained to spot and take advantage of vulnerabilities in children, [and] Tik Tok has made this easier than ever.

“Grooming can occur for free on TikTok in children,” Guinn said. “There is no doubt that [the video hosting service] can play a harmful role in the potential recruitment and grooming of children for sex trafficking.”

More Communication Needed

Guinn admitted that a child’s use of TikTok is incredibly difficult to monitor. “It’s terrifying because it could be grooming children from their phones with no one’s knowledge.”

While a parent’s gut reaction is to pull everything, she said, removing the app from a device or taking away a child’s phone isn’t a foolproof solution. “Children will find a way to get what they want. Kids are incredibly resourceful and will find a way. Most likely through using a friend’s phone at school.

“Many times, the most susceptible are victims of sexual abuse, substance abuse, broken homes, or more,” she said. And by taking away a child’s phone, “a parent could create a space that’s not trusting or communicative—which is not helpful when all you want to do is protect your child.

“Remember, kids are often looking to meet their needs, and TikTok has provided instantaneous access to unhealthy alternatives to fill that vulnerability,” Guinn said. In her opinion, the best armor against such evil is over-communication and increased awareness. Sex trafficking is something that must be discussed despite how uncomfortable it is to do so, she said.

Increase communication and spread awareness, not fear,” Guinn said. “Over-communicate with your kids, knowing where they are and what they’re doing, asking who their friends are, and talking about what’s on their phones.

“I’d rather over-communicate and have a safe, ticked-off teenager than be in the dark,” Guinn said.

TikTok did not return The Epoch Times’ request for comment. Last month, the app set a one-hour default time limit for users under the age of 18 amid growing concerns about the platform’s effect on children.

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