Emerald Lacy – Ask any young person and they can tell you about online gaming. Even if they don’t ‘game’ themselves, they have seen glimpses into this world. Top-earning YouTube gamers can make $10 million a year and have over 20 million subscribers. On all major social media sites, memes about online gaming are constantly circulating, and in 2018, a dance challenge based on the game Fortnite went viral. There is no denying it: Online games are ingrained in youth culture.
With video games, parents may have their usual concerns over violence and too much screen time, but a more sinister threat is on the rise. Online predators are increasingly using gaming platforms and chatrooms to traffic children. While depictions of child sex trafficking often portray children stolen from the street and bound up as hostages, in reality, traffickers more use advanced manipulation techniques to lure unsuspecting youth. The anonymity of online interfaces lends a particular advantage to these predators. This threat is not a new one; parents have been telling their kids for decades, “Don’t talk to strangers on the internet!” Yet traffickers on gaming platforms have managed to slip through the cracks by using a new medium and targeted a neglected group of potential victims – boys.
As technology evolves ever more rapidly, so do child traffickers. Online platforms offer anonymity and direct access and allow traffickers to build relationships with their victims over days, weeks, and even months to gain their trust. Predators may offer gifts, money, or promises of free travel to lure a child into meeting them in person. While these techniques have been seen on social media platforms, their applicability to video games has been overlooked. Yet multi-player online games and the numerous chatrooms and forums dedicated to video gaming operate in much the same way as social media. In some ways, these platforms offer more protection for predators by creating the assumption of a common motive. Unlike social media where participants go online for the sole purpose of interacting, online gamers are presumed to be primarily interested in video games. This oversight has allowed online traffickers the perfect medium for direct contact with a young and primarily male audience.
Discussions on human trafficking typically portray victims as female, and not without just cause. Women and girls are disproportionately trafficked, both off and online. Young girls are frequently targeted through social and video-streaming platforms. However, players of online video games are disproportionately young men, with 97% of teen males playing video games on some device. Although girls also play video games, this medium opens up new opportunities for traffickers to recruit boys in ways that had formerly focused on girls only.
An ECPAT-USA report, And Boys Too, highlighted the lack of attention paid to male victims of child sex trafficking. As we enter a new decade, the rising number of young men targeted on gaming platforms and chat rooms shows there is still much work to be done in recognizing both boys and girls as vulnerable groups. Girls continue to be targeted by online predators but, as the online gaming world grows, so do our boys.
So what can parents do? Thankfully, some online gaming sites are increasing protections against predators with automated systems they say can detect some grooming behaviors, including attempts to move a chat off-platform. Still, the urge may arise to monitor a child’s every online interaction (which is nearly all of their interactions) or restrict their internet access completely. But this fails to address the core problem of children being exploited.
The way to combat exploitation is information. Placing a child in a bubble will only serve to limit their growth and self-esteem. It may be difficult and will definitely be awkward, but one conversation on the realities of sex trafficking could save a child’s life. ECPAT-USA’s Youth Against Child Trafficking (Y-Act) program offers a Healthy Virtual Identities workshop to NYC schools and youth groups. In 2018, the youth who participated showed a significant positive increase in understanding online sexual exploitation. From these schools, 87% of teachers and administrators said the information was “extremely useful.” Y-Act’s social media is focused on educating and empowering youth on the issues of sex-trafficking. If our children know how a healthy relationship – romantic or platonic, in-person or online – should look, this exploitation may never occur in the first place. If we teach our youth what kind of treatment they deserve, they will learn to say “no” to anything else.
Online gaming is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. Electronic sports, or eSports, is a $43 billion dollar industry that is only expected to grow, with some colleges even offering scholarships for eSport players. While we cannot change the market or the very nature of online interactions, we can start by having small conversations that allow our youth to make informed decisions about their online activity.