SARASOTA, Fla. — Staying one step ahead of the tactics of human traffickers is part of the job for Selah Freedom Prevention Coordinator Hilda Arreola. Lately, Arreola said that’s included working to educate young people about how traffickers use online gaming and social media to lure victims.
“It is something that has grown rapidly, especially after COVID hit, because all we really had was online where we could go to kind of just take our minds off of everything that was going on,” Arreola said.
Arreola said part of the challenge is determining if the person a teen or child is messaging with is a friend or someone with bad intentions. A red flag can be someone asking a lot of personal questions.
“We say that because one thing that traffickers, that abusers do, is they hone in on what is your vulnerability. What is that weak spot that you may have? Are you looking for attention? Are you looking for love? Or are you looking for maybe, like, materialistic things? If that’s your thing, they have a lot of money, and they’re okay with spending it on you,” Arreola said.
Arreola said the nonprofit offers training called “Sex, Lies, and Media” aimed at youth and adults that work to raise awareness about online sexual exploitation. The trainings also educate parents about apps geared toward kids that could end up connecting them with traffickers.
“When your kid has access to the internet, whether it’s a cell phone or a gaming device, if there’s a way that someone can communicate with them without there being a parent present, then you’ve got a problem,” said Billy Joe Cain.
Cain is a Texas-based video game developer whose company, PBJ Learning, and nonprofit, Radical Empathy Education Foundation, work to educate the public about human trafficking online and through virtual reality.
“Virtual reality has this special ability, which is that it can immerse you so thoroughly that you can kind of forget that you’re in a virtual space. So, if you have content that can help people connect emotionally to some material, you can actually get them to care about a topic,” Cain said.
This topic is one that Cain connects with personally.
“My kids were exposed to a sex predator, and so I wanted to find a way to educate people about that,” he said. “So, I did a bunch of research and found out that human trafficking is all about vulnerabilities and how do you get people to acknowledge and recognize that they have these vulnerabilities.”
Cain created a virtual reality experience called “Trapped” that puts users in the shoes of a young trafficking victim. It explains how she was groomed via social media and walks through what her life is like under the control of a trafficker. He said the goal is to teach young people what online behaviors to avoid.
Selah Freedom is in the process of buying VR headsets to begin offering “Trapped” in Florida.
April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. According to information from Selah Freedom, child abuse has a strong connection to human trafficking. Information from the nonprofit states one in ten children will experience abuse by the time they turn 18, and many sex trafficking survivors report that they were abused as kids.
Visit Selah Freedom to learn more about resources they offer.
Visit childwelfare.gov for more child abuse prevention resources.