So, you met a guy online. Or a girl. (For purposes of stylistic ease, we are using the male pronoun here, but this person could be of any gender.)
It could have been Facebook. Kik. Fortnite.
He seems so nice. Flattering. Sweet. And he really likes you, it seems. He understands, accepts, and supports you like no one has before. You’re just a teenager, but you feel like you can tell him anything. Even revealing your deepest secrets won’t turn him away.
After talking together for months (or weeks, or days), this stranger wants to meet you in person. And you’re not sure what to do.
On the one hand, this person feels like your best friend. You’ve been chatting, emailing, and phone calling for ages. You guys are so close. Why not take the next step and meet in real life?
And then a voice whispers in your ear, reminding you that your new best friend is essentially a stranger. Who knows who he really is? What if he’s dangerous?
Social Media Predators
When that little voice starts creeping in your head, don’t ignore it. In this case, listening to that inner critic might just save your life.
People you meet online can be dangerous. Sometimes, an online “best friend” is actually a sex trafficker who wants to coerce you into dangerous situations. He could abduct you. He might have no qualms about killing you.
Yes, we said it. Because it’s happened.
So, what should you do?
Let’s be clear: Never agree to meet an online stranger in person, alone.
All that back-and-forth texting with this cute guy could eventually lead to something quite sinister. In fact, as soon as an online stranger asks for personal information like photos, where you live, or phone number, be wary. It might be time to block this person on social media and report him to law enforcement. As well as you may think you know this person, you really never know his complete background and true intentions.
Alicia Kozakiewicz, a sex trafficking survivor and founder of the Alicia Project (an organization dedicated to raising awareness about trafficking prevention) was abducted at age 13 by someone she thought was a “friend.”
“At first he acted like he was my friend. But he immediately began to groom me. The grooming process was extremely effective,” she said in a video. “It’s like brainwashing…It could cause a child to walk out of their house, go to the airport, and get on a plane [with a trafficker].”
During the online grooming process, predators – who usually hide behind anonymous accounts — use social media to befriend teens order to bring their guard down.
“Many of them use attention-grabbing statements like you’re beautiful and other flattering remarks. They could also promise modeling or movie opportunities that are ultimately just a façade,” says Maricela Vega, staff member at Evolve Treatment Centers, who had extensive experience working with victims of sex trafficking in San Diego. “Once they have the girl in the palm of their hand, they then make them do whatever they want.”
In an interview with TIME magazine, Bethany Gilot, who works in human trafficking prevention at the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, calls these online predators “internet Romeos.”
“Romeos groom their targets over several months, building trust and chipping away at a prospective victim’s other relationships. Often, a Romeo will persuade a girl to move with him to a new town. Eventually he’ll engineer a traumatic event to “break” his victim. Then, when she feels she has nowhere else to turn, he forces her into prostitution.”
How to Get Help
If you think you’re being courted by such a “Romeo,” or you find yourself in a situation with someone who’s frightening you (or even if there’s just something strange about them), get help. You don’t have to feel hopeless or alone. Many, many other teens find themselves in such situations and don’t know how to get out.
First, tell someone you trust. This could be a parent, a friend’s parent, a teacher, a school counselor, a mental health professional, or another responsible adult. A trustworthy adult will never shame or blame you for your situation. Remember that dangerous predators are very savvy in actively seeking out victims like yourself.
Ask this person for help—plain and simple. Allow them to guide you in extricating yourself from this situation and, if applicable, reporting the predator to the proper authorities.
After the crisis passes, ask this person if they can help refer you to a teen mental health treatment center (such as a residential treatment center or partial hospitalization program). At an adolescent mental health treatment center, you can receive help for your depression, low self-esteem, self-injurious behavior, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, codependency, or other emotional issues that might have made you more vulnerable to online predators. In residential treatment, you will learn how to work through these concerns in a safe place. You will learn how to heal and overcome from your trauma, practice self-acceptance and self-care, and set healthy boundaries between yourself and others.
Other Supportive Resources
If you don’t have access to someone trustworthy, or don’t feel comfortable talking to them (though realize that most adults will help you no matter what the situation), you can anonymously call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or text 233733. They are open 24/7.
There are so many people in the world who care about teens just like you, and numerous social service programs help teens who have fallen victim to sexual exploitation and trafficking. Ask the National Human Trafficking Hotline if there are any resources near you.