Online business from hell: child trafficking in video games.

Artist: Li Songsong

This is how trafficking happens online. Often the system is so efficient that it never has to change to in-person.

Trigger warning.

There’s a team of adults waiting for the time a kid uses video games as a salve for emotional neglect. Neglect isn’t always intentional. It’s not always systematic. And parents cannot be available every second of every day. That’s why the team of adults is all of that: intentional, systematic and always available.

Person number one: Great at playing a certain video game. Looks for a kid who is playing a multi-player game alone, too much, at odd hours, with a low rank. Asks the kid to play and helps the kid win a lot. Talks over chat just like billions of other people but focuses to learn the kid’s schedule, likes and dislikes. Becomes a friend. Asks the kid to join a Discord server for other kids who play the game.

Person number two: Takes over and becomes a bad friend. Knows the game but not as well. Mostly talks to the kid. Makes the kid feel like part of a group on the server. Finds out from the first person what the kid wants, what is the kid’s weak spot, how to get close to the kid. Sends a picture of a topless girl to the kid.

Person number three: This person tells the kid that the photo is illegal. This is not illegal. But most parents say to their kid that it’s illegal, so the kid believes it. This person says if anyone finds out the kid will go to prison. The kid believes it. Calms the kid down. Scares the kid again.

Calms the kid again and introduces other kids. The kids are nice. The scares get scarier, like videos of those same kids getting hurt for not following directions. Most important directions: come back to the server when you’re told.

This person does everything over voice because this is the first person doing anything illegal. At this point, many kids say they are going to report the predator, but the predator points out that there is nothing to report — there is no evidence. And it’s true. The predators have been extremely careful.

Person number four: Gives orders to the kid for pictures. Teaches the kids to edit the way customers want. Shames kids for bad editing. It takes time to learn to edit, but kids learn fast, in between homework assignments, family gatherings, track meets.

The trafficker gets the kid to do things that are dangerous by giving praise, trains the kid to crave praise. Shows kid photos of other kids to normalize what they are doing. Also shows photos of kids they killed when the kids misbehaved. (Killed may or may not be true — for the kids it’s 100% true.)

Here’s what parents can do:

Tell your kid the real law instead of telling them all nude photos are illegal.

Don’t take your kid’s phone away. Kids will go online anyway by giving their friends their password. Your kid is better at keeping their account safe than their friend is.

For Discord think in terms of purpose: join a server to meet a specific goal. If there is no clear purpose get off the server.

This is just one way trafficking works on Discord. There are many other ways. Also, it’s not just Discord. This is how it works on Roblox. This is how it works on Fortnite. And no matter what game your kid plays, the gaming companies are full of employees who are also pedophiles, because of course pedophiles know the best ways to get access to kids.

I’m not telling you this to tell you to keep your kids off video games. It’s impossible and also nonsensical. I’m telling you that if you are not emotionally available for your kid, someone else will be. And just like you wouldn’t leave your kid physically alone on a dark street to be assaulted, you shouldn’t leave your kid emotionally alone on the Internet.

Traffickers look for kids who have no emotionally available adult. Emotionally available adults are not just “a phone call away” or “always at home”. Emotionally available adults are not consumed with their own emotions, they know what’s going on day to day, they listen carefully, and genuinely care.

Traffickers know this and they ask kids all the time “what’s going on?” and “how is your day”? and traffickers listen very carefully so they respond in a way that is meaningful to the kid.

Video games aren’t dangerous. Emotional neglect is dangerous.

If you believe you may have information about a trafficking situation, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline toll-free hotline at 1-888-373-7888. Anti-Trafficking Hotline Advocates are available 24/7 to take reports of potential human trafficking.

18 replies
  1. Dana
    Dana says:

    I’m so glad you stated this. Emotional neglect is extremely dangerous. I would say just as much as physical neglect.
    Thank you, Penelope.

    Reply
  2. Amelia
    Amelia says:

    Thank you very much for this post. I have Asperger’s and have several home-educated kids. They play on these games and have been asked to join discord servers. I could tell something was wrong with some of these requests and that the kids seemed somewhat secretive about these requests, but I didn’t know what or why – so didn’t know how to explain what was and was not safe (they’re very intelligent kids and want reasons for what I ask or prohibit. If they have good reasons, they’re happy.)
    As soon as I read your blog I read it out to them. They got it immediately. I am so very very grateful to you, Penelope.

    Reply
  3. Carla
    Carla says:

    Hi Penelope
    You do a hard and great job!
    Thanks for the post. I have an eight year old. He is already gaming but not online yet. And I know he will soon. So, I am trying to anticipate and learn how to deal with it. It is very scary though.

    Reply
  4. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    Holy wow, I had no idea about any of this stuff. I wonder if my children encountered anything like this while they were growing up. They’re now 23 and 25.

    Reply
  5. Cobscookie
    Cobscookie says:

    I read this with #1 reaction being wow where did this info come from and #2 being geez, am I emotionally available enough for my kid who is an obsessive gamer who spends a lot of time on Discord. I know NOTHING about Discord. So I shared the link with him with the following message: “I am curious about whether you know anything about this world and this kind of exploitation happening on Discord, or whether you think it is parental paranoia/conspiracy theory. It would give me a sense of whether this blogger is reliable in general.” My kid’s response:

    “For Discord think in terms of purpose: join a server to meet a specific goal. If there is no clear purpose get off the server.” this is stupid advice, it’s a social media. She is saying stay off social media unless necessary. No, just be smarter on the internet. Idk if this actually happens but there’s no evidence, and I don’t listen to people without evidence. I mean there could have been but I just skimmed it.

    So for myself, I’m still trying to figure out the the reliability of the gamer/Discord info in this post. I think the importance of emotional availability is self-evident to most people who read this blog. What am I missing here?

    Reply
    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      You had an opportunity to have an emotional, face-to-face conversation about an important topic with your son, but you texted/emailed instead, with a transactional tone.

      You could have asked him about his input and experiences because you care about him. But instead you made a point of telling him you’re asking because you want to know if you should trust the blogger you’re reading.

      I can understand why your son didn’t read the post. You didn’t sound like you wanted to invest emotional energy in the conversation, so he didn’t invest emotional energy either.

      Being emotionally available is hard for a lot of us. You included.

      Penelope

      Reply
      • Cobscookie
        Cobscookie says:

        Fair enough. I will take that to heart. And I deeply apologize for missing the fact that some text at the end was hyperlinked. I responded too quickly and thoughtlessly to this in every way. Thank you for taking the time to write a thoughtful and insightful response.

        Reply
  6. Mike McBride
    Mike McBride says:

    As a survivor of child sexual abuse myself, I am glad that you are adding your voice to this important topic. Thank you. Similar to what you’ve said here I have tried to get the message out that predators of all types, online and off, target the kids who are both vulnerable and have no one to tell. The number one thing I didn’t have growing up was a parent or other adult with who I felt safe enough to tell anything. That not only made me an inviting target, a kid who was used to keeping secrets and kept that one well into adulthood.

    Reply
  7. elizabeth
    elizabeth says:

    Penelope, I really appreciate this post/this information. I’d love for you to do more posts on emotional neglect. I was emotionally neglected as a child and am just coming to terms with it and I don’t know what to do differently. You break things down in a way that I can really understand it, so I’d be grateful for any/all posts you give on this topic. xo

    Reply
  8. ru
    ru says:

    I feel like the internet hasn’t changed much since I was 13 and actually getting locked into these online predator chats. And my parents were so relieved that the internet is better than TV. Their words “at least she can learn to code”
    And then I realized if i didn’t look out for myself, my parents never would. Something else was always occupying their energy.
    So once I started working, I learned how to feign emotional stability because you couldn’t get hired looking like an emotional mess.
    Once I was ahead enough and was in a position to interview co-ops, I started every job interview with “How was your day today? And did you have to miss class to come to this interview?”
    Some students were so stumped right away and had to pause the interview to gather their thoughts. They would have a hard time to keep answering questions. And I saw my old self in them they way they try to look put together.
    All this to say, I still have no idea how to parent my own kid to see predator behaviours online and offline.

    Reply
    • Minami
      Minami says:

      Hi Ru!

      Just wanted to say, I love that you do this in interviews. It shows so much empathy and respect for the other person’s humanity, to a degree that’s rare to receive from a stranger.

      Reply
  9. page
    page says:

    Hey Penelope, Thanks so much for this. It made me cry. I read all the comments so far. This is a subject that really counts. Hurray for the kids that actually read the whole thing. Finding people who read ,instead of skim, is the big thing these days. I grew up a reader because we had limits on tv as children. I didn’t get enough attention either, but of course I did not know that at the time. I DID realize ,though, when I grew up, what it took to be a parent, and I opted out. For all you parents out there ,who are barely holding on, or doing a bad job, I salute you ! My sister became a parent without any self awareness, and she never got off the hamster wheel of guilt. So, even if you feel like a terrible person, you can still do plenty of good, too. My mom did. She did the best she knew how. So, like Penelope suggests, sit down and read together, this post. And let them know that you WANT to be there for them, regardless of how rushed or tired or distracted you appear-

    Reply
  10. Minami
    Minami says:

    Being someone your kids feel safe talking to about anything is so important. I never told my parents anything I was doing, ever. I think a difficult but important thing to learn is when a kid should be “in trouble” for doing something wrong/bad (i.e. receive a consequence for it), or when it should be a conversation instead. The latter for times when you really want the kid to come to you and tell you when it happens, regardless of how “wrong” or “bad” the thing they did may have been.

    But it’s so hard to know where to draw the lines. I struggle with it as a teacher. I can’t imagine how much harder it is for parents.

    Reply
  11. Adam
    Adam says:

    Wow that is a terrifying thing to think about. I know this was kind of a thing in chatrooms when I was a kid in the 90s but never really thought about it going on through the online games.

    Reply
  12. Steffi
    Steffi says:

    Penelope, may I ask how you know that this is happening? Have you witnessed someone trying to do this to your own children?

    This is so sad to me because my children have friends whose parents are absent and emotionally unavailable. They give their children an iPad or a phone with no controls on it, then check out of parenting.

    I was also neglected by my parents starting in my pre-teen years, so I raised myself from 12 until I left for college. I remember using AIM and talking to strangers on completely inappropriate chat rooms at about 13 after my parents gave me a computer for my room. They were clueless about what was on the Internet in those days, and didn’t care what I did alone in my room as long as I didn’t bother them or ask to do something that would have cost them money. I have no doubt that if I were a teen today, I would be in big, big trouble.

    My heart breaks for these children and I try every day of my life to build relationships with my own children that will guide them through the filth in our society.

    Reply

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