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  • August 31, 2020

    Child Exploitation in the Digital Age

    As social media changes and evolves, so do the ways children can be targeted and abused – and helped. Brooke Houston discusses the ways the internet can be used to exploit and save children.

    Brooke Houston

    Technology benefits the world in thousands of ways. It provides a means of connection and communication, allows us to find answers to nearly any question, gives us the ability to work remotely and stay up-to-date with every current event in the news and with our friends and family.

    Social media offers different platforms that children of all ages can use and even earn money from. One 7 year old made over $22 million in 2018 by reviewing toys on YouTube. Numerous other children have ‘gone viral’ for creating dances, reviewing food and beverages, and just being really, really adorable. However, technology and social media are not without their downfalls – specifically for children.

    Using Social Media to Exploit Children

    The unfortunate reality of social media and technology is that it is used in a way that assists in the exploitation of children. This exploitation ranges from falsely using children to raise money, to child pornography and child sex trafficking. Parents have used images of children on Go Fund Me – a platform to raise money for different issues or for children – that can be accessed by anyone online. While many are doing so because the child was directly negatively impacted by something, others are using this platform as a ruse, such as faking images of sick children just so others will donate out of the kindness of their hearts.

    Brooke Houston Brooke Houston, Marquette 2020, is an attorney with Bascom, Budish & Ceman, S.C. in Germantown, where she practices in workers’ compensation and civil litigation defense.

    Other forms of child exploitation have been enhanced by technology. Child pornography and child sex trafficking have been on the rise since the invention of the internet, and are continuing to trend upward.

    While U.S. federal law defines child pornography as “any visual depiction of sexually explicit conduct involving a minor,” the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children refers to these images as “Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) – which, they say, more accurately reflects what is depicted.

    The internet has made it substantially easier for people to spread CSAM, causing more harm to children. The Canadian Centre for Child Protection recently found that 67% of CSAM survivors said the distribution of their images impacts them differently than the hands-on abuse they suffered, because the distribution never ends, and the images are permanent.

    This continued trauma that is perpetuated by the use of the internet is a large problem in today’s technology-ridden era.

    The Internet and Child Sex Trafficking

    Not only does the internet assist in the spread of child sexual abuse material, it also makes it easier for child sex trafficking – another cycle of abuse.

    The anti-human trafficking organization THORN says that “the internet has made it easier for children to be bought and sold online – using some of the same technology and websites that people use to sell their bike, find a roommate or look for a local garage sale.” The organization surveys survivors to understand in detail how the children are coerced into this environment. The survey revealed that of survivors who were exploited in the last decade, 75% reported being advertised online.

    Awareness Reduces Child Exploitation

    Building awareness about this issue is one of the main ways we can help combat it. According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, red flags that may mean a child is being exploited for sex or is being targeted include:

    • showing significant change in behavior;

    • associating with a new group of friends;

    • not asking for help or resisting help when offered;

    • being preoccupied with getting money;

    • possessing multiple cell phones, no form of identification, hotel keys or receipts; or

    • having items or an appearance that does not fit his or her current situation.

    While this is not an exhaustive list, is it behavior to be aware of which could evince sex trafficking.

    Recently sex exploitation and trafficking has been in the media’s attention because of the popular website PornHub. An email address is the only requirement to upload pornography onto the site, making it that much easier for the distribution of exploitation of children. There is currently a petition to shut down the site following the discovery of 58 videos of the rape of a 15-year-old-girl. This is just one example of child exploitation (and crime) that can be found on the site. To learn more about this topic, visit

    Thankfully, there are many organizations that focus on reducing child sexual exploitation – relying heavily on the advantages of technology and the internet to do so. THORN, as mentioned earlier, is an anti-trafficking organization which uses technology as a solution. THORN has created numerous platforms that help law enforcement “to stay ahead of perpetrators and identify more children.” With the help of survivors, THORN created technology that allows more victims to be identified, and to educate other online platforms about spotting child abuse content and removing it.

    Ways to Help

    One way to support this initiative is by donating directly to THORN. THORN also suggests simple actions that everyone can take to help protect children. These include talking about the problem, listening to survivors, supporting local organizations, reporting misconduct, continuing education about the topic, and advocating to legislators for more protections in the law.

    The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children also provides avenues for individuals to help children. The initiative is in charge of an online CyberTipLine where people can report incidents, as well as a 24-hour hotline, at (800) 843-5678.

    The National Human Trafficking Hotline is another 24/7 hotline that people can and should report sex trafficking to. The hotline can be reached at (888) 373-7888, or a text message may be sent to 233733. Additionally, a reporter can ‘chat’ with the hotline online.

    Conclusion: Let’s Continue the Discussion

    While technology has aided us in so many ways, we must keep in mind its pitfalls, and do what we can to help support those in need. I encourage you to, at the very least, continue discussing this topic and encourage others to do the same. Likewise, look at the various organizations mentioned in this article and consider supporting them, so we can continue the efforts in protecting children.

    State Bar of Wisconsin PINNACLE® and the Children and the Law Section are presenting the live webinar Trending Topics in Juvenile Justice Reform & Practice 2020 on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020. Tuition discounts are available to section members. Visit's Marketplace for full details.

    This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Children & the Law Section Blog. Visit the State Bar sections or the Children & the Law Section web pages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.

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    Children & the Law Blog is published by the Children & the Law Section and the State Bar of Wisconsin; blog posts are written by section members. To contribute to this blog, contact Christie Christie and review Author Submission Guidelines. Learn more about the Children & the Law Section or become a member.

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