Can the internet be flipped on online sexual predators to help victims?

    Following the enormous growth of human trafficking on the internet, organizations like International Justice Mission (IJM), Project North Carolina Organizing and Responding to the Exploitation and Sexual Trafficking of Children (NO REST) and the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault (NCCASA) have made it their goal to combat the scourge while utilizing the same tech to their advantage.

    As human interaction has moved to the internet—with humans relying on technology for many tasks on a daily basis—the sexual exploitation of children and women, and human trafficking as a whole, has as well. The chief outlet for this trafficking has been websites like Backpage.com—a Craigslist-like board where “escorts” can be advertised and sold to interested suitors.

    The internet and social media serve as gateways for sex trafficking rings to target their victims. Using different methods, the internet has become a sort of hunting ground for sex trafficking rings.

    According to a 2015 study by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping teens and adults manage and thrive in the age of technology, teenagers spend an average of nine hours a day on the internet, with some checking their social media more than 100 times a day.

    With so much of human interaction moving to the internet, especially in the younger generations, an associate professor in the UNC School of Media and Journalism, Lois Boynton, said it’s not surprising that sex trafficking has moved to that medium as well.

    “It’s a double-edged sword,” Boynton said. “It (the internet) does provide a lot of opportunities to have dialogue between individuals and also between reporters and sources or potential sources.”

    That interaction has the potential to be dangerous, a fact that organizations like IJM, NO REST and NCCASA have recognized.

    Boynton said that social media is a perfect place for people with ill intent, as you can be whomever you want to be with the screen acting as a curtain between a trafficker and a possible victim.

    “The thing about the lack of that knowledge, that ‘hiding behind a screen’ type of thing is that you have to ask yourself additional questions about who is this person, to avoid being duped in some way,” Boynton said.

    IJM is an organization that is focused on getting justice for the poor. This global organization works to protect the poor from violence in the developing world. They’re working to combat sex trafficking, which they describe as a form of modern-day slavery, by rescuing victims and bringing criminals to justice.

    These organizations have stepped forward, hoping to combat sites like Backpage.com and technology-based incentives that aid in sex trafficking. IJM, Project NO REST and NCCASA are three of many technology-focused organizations that have made researching and fighting the role of technology in trafficking part of their mission.

    IJM reported that over half of the victims they have been successful in rescuing have been children between the ages of 1 and 12, many of whom are survivors of cybersex trafficking. International Justice Mission describes cyber-sex trafficking as one of the greatest threats to human life.

    While IJM is an international organization, it has several chapters in colleges and towns across the United States. The IJM chapter at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is dedicated to helping the national organization achieve its goal of providing relief to women, men and children all across the world who have been captured, enslaved and subjected to other cruel working conditions.

    IJM’s website says the organization is “inspired by God’s call to love all people and to seek justice for the oppressed, we protect the poor from violence without regard to religion, race, or any other factor. We seek to partner with all people of goodwill.”

    Rachel Ricks, communications chair at the IJM chapter at UNC-Chapel Hill, said “because IJM is a national organization, the ways in which national IJM strives to achieve this mission looks different from the ways our college chapter seeks to achieve this mission. For our college chapter, our main three objectives are prayer, advocacy, and fundraising.”

    Ricks is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill and is studying exercise and sports science. Ricks joined the UNC chapter of IJM as a freshman in the spring of 2015 and became the communications chair in August of 2017.

    Ricks said the UNC-Chapel Hill chapter of IJM holds to the national mission of fighting for the freedom of God’s children who have been enslaved, captured and subject to cruel work conditions in order to fight for their humanity and their equality as human beings by praying, advocating and fundraising for the national organization.

    “There are 45.8 million slaves in the world, which is more than there have ever been before in human history, and so many people are not aware of the immensity of this problem,” Ricks said. “We advocate in order to call people out of their complacency, and to call them to real love and compassion for others instead.”

    IJM is currently seeking justice in 17 countries. They have been successful in rescuing over 40,000 people from trafficking and other social injustices and are currently providing protection to over 21 million people all across the globe, attempting to end violence around the world.

    IJM is aware of the fact that as the internet is becoming available in more places around the world every day, the risk is high of pedophiles using it to reach and expose children, women and men across the globe. In order to combat this form of sex trafficking, IJM uses the internet to reach more and more people every day, spreading their mission as far as they can.

    IJM uses their internet platform to inform the public of this reality, by sharing stories of survivors and their experiences and their successes. The internet is also used by IJM to encourage the public to donate to their mission, as well as sharing stories that exploit this form of human trafficking.

    While the national IJM organization uses their website to advocate for victims and inform the public, the IJM chapter at UNC-CH uses the organization to advertise events, lectures and outreach programs that are being held on the campus.

    Last month, IJM at UNC held an outreach called Freedom Fast, the national IJM fundraiser. The organization used Facebook to create an event that was shared with students and members of the public in the Chapel Hill area, encouraging people to attend.

    “The Lord really demonstrated His faithfulness to us by allowing us to raise $1,251, meeting and surpassing our goal of $1,000,” Ricks said. “It is hard to invoke generosity out of college students, and yet so many were exactly that for a cause that typically has a hard time fundraising.”

    Other organizations are joining IJM in fighting cyber-sex trafficking using the internet. Dean Duncan, a research professor at UNC-Chapel Hill founded Project NO REST and is encouraging the fight against human trafficking involving the internet.

    Project NO REST began in October 2015 and is motivated to address and increase awareness of the issue of human trafficking affecting children and youth ages 25 and younger in North Carolina. Project NO REST works to reduce the number of trafficked youth by researching what “type” of child would be a target.

    Project NO REST, Duncan said, brought together experts and advocates interested in providing services to trafficked youth and developed a comprehensive plan to address trafficking. This plan was then implemented in five pilot sites across North Carolina. The plan involved educating school counselors and parents about what trafficking looks like.

    A big part of Project NO REST is increasing awareness among parents and children of the child trafficking that exists. Duncan said psycho-educational strategies like a curriculum called “My Life, My Choice” are being used to educate at-risk youth on things like what a trafficker looks like and how a healthy relationship should look.

    “A lot of the trafficking that is happening now is happening on the internet,” Duncan said. “NO REST educates people of that trend.”

    NCCASA is another organization that has seen the effects of the internet on sex trafficking.

    “NCCASA has three main areas of focus, advocacy, education and policy,” said Sarah Harrison, sex-trafficking expert with NCCASA. “Our goal is to be a part of the movement that ends sexual violence, working to address the root causes of sexual violence as well as improve services and outcomes for people that experience sexual violence now.”

    Harrison added that NCCASA pushes for the conversation about the reality of sexual violence to begin in the home and advocate for prevention from there.

    “We advocate strongly for primary prevention, working with young children to understand age appropriate concepts of consent, what a healthy sexual life can look like, and where they can find help if they need it.”

    NCCASA uses the internet to share their success stories, as well as inform the public of the reality of the broadening definition of sexual assault in North Carolina.

    “Sexual violence has a much broader definition then what is legally used (especially in this state), and so to address the most violent rape is to also address sexual harassment in the workplace and unwanted touching on an elevator or sexually suggestive e-mails from a person you don’t have that relationship with,” Harrison said.

    Cyber-sex trafficking is the reality. Organizations like IJM, Project NO REST and NCCASA are working to address this reality and combat it, utilizing the internet as a way to inform, advocate for victims and encourage giving, all to fight the scourge.

    “(Sexual assault) exists on a spectrum, and to end one type, we must address them all,” Harrison said.

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