Maria* was 13 years old when she first got Instagram on her phone. She had her parent’s permission because Instagram is rated as appropriate for “Ages 12+.”
She loved sharing photos as well as “liking” and commenting on her friend’s images. She posted about being in Girl Scouts, babysitting her younger brother, and going to the lake with her friends.
It wasn’t long before strange men started reaching out to her in direct messages.
She mostly ignored them. But, one day, a direct message came in from someone who looked young and cute in his profile picture and who he said he went to school in the neighboring town. Maria accepted his direct message request and the two began DMing back and forth every day.
He was interested in learning everything about her, which was flattering, and he soon asked her to be his “girlfriend.” Even though she’d never met him in real life, she agreed because he made her feel loved.
It was shortly after that when he started soliciting her to send him sexually explicit images. At first Maria said no, but he kept asking and began making her feel guilty for saying no. Eventually she relented and sent him some sexually explicit images of herself.
And that day changed everything.
Instagram, the social media app that Maria had been so excited to use and share with her friends, became her virtual prison!
You see, this “young and cute boy” that Maria had sent her sexually explicit images to was not a boy at all. He was an adult man who promptly used these graphic photos to blackmail Maria. He threatened to send Maria’s sexually explicit photos to her parents and to all her classmates if she didn’t have sex with him and then with others. Maria felt trapped. Before she knew it she was a victim of sex trafficking and was being sold to one stranger after another.
This went on for three months, while she was still living in her parent’s home, until she finally gathered the courage to tell someone and get help.
No child should ever go through that trauma.
Unfortunately, as more children are spending time online while home from school due to the coronavirus pandemic, many are warning (including the FBI) that children are at increased risk of this kind of online sexual exploitation because there is now more “supply” of children to meet the “demand” of predators.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, law enforcement only had the capacity to rescue a few children at a time and safe houses only had a limited number of beds to help those children recover. Meanwhile exploiters have nearly limitless access to children through social media apps and are therefore able to abuse more girls like Maria than we’ll ever know.
But the National Center on Sexual Exploitation has an aggressive strategy to fight this scourge.
Our strategy is to prevent the abuse of girls like Maria in the first place by demanding and getting critical changes to corporate policies as well as advocating for legislation and best business practices that favor safety above mere profits. We have a long history of success with efforts like these thanks to your generous support, but the rapid advance of technology means our efforts and resources need to expand in kind.
This is your invitation to prevent the abuse and exploitation of a child who is just logging into Instagram for the first time today.
In light of this increased danger for children, we feel emboldened to ask you:
Every amount can be used to make a big difference right now. We’ll turn your monthly donation, whatever you can afford, into advocacy with legislators and corporate executives as well as a means for getting crucial information and resources into the hands of parents so they can protect their children.
Will you help children like Maria to survive this crisis?
*Name changed to protect the innocent.
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