The Shocking Tactics Sex Traffickers Use to Trap Your Kids and 5 Ways You Can Protect Them
Recently I had the opportunity to interview Russ Tuttle of The Stop Trafficking Project. Watch our interview or read the transcript below.
Note: The transcription of this interview has been edited for clarity.
Kristen: Hi everyone! It’s Kristen Jenson from Protect Young Minds and today we have a really special guest. It’s Russ Tuttle. He has started a non-profit. I’m going to let him tell you about it, but it’s to help kids who are being trafficked. So we’re going to talk a little bit today about trafficking and the role pornography plays in fueling this really dangerous trend among our youth.
So Russ, welcome! Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today. Just give us a little background of your Stop Trafficking Project and how you started this and what your main goal is with this project.
Goals of the Stop Trafficking Project
Russ: The organization is called the Stop Trafficking Project and it was kind of birthed in me about eleven years ago. I had lived quite a bit of my life overseas in the country of India of all places. Having grown up there and spent most of my teenage years there I understood the concept of human trafficking before human trafficking was even a popularized term.
So I was probably one of most normal Americans, who when it came specifically to the issue of human trafficking or maybe even more specifically sex trafficking, that my understanding was that it happens in those exotic countries...over there-like India. The problem is I had lived 12-13 years of my life in India so I really understood that it’s not quite what we think it is. And yes, it is happening there and it’s horrific. It’s horrible.
So like most people I thought ok, only exotic countries, over there. And then, like most Americans, we understand there’s a really serious problem south of the border and there’s horrible things happening and we feel really bad about that.
But then to stop and realize that it’s actually American kids protected by American law that are potentially falling into this horrific crime that we would call domestic minor sex trafficking? Honestly that really got my attention.
So I decided to start a non-profit to begin to address this issue and realized that one of the primary focuses we have to have in actually ending this kind of sexual exploitation of kids, which includes domestic minor sex trafficking, is that we have to end it before it even gets into the windshield and can enter into the kid’s life that this is something that [they're] even going to entertain.
So I wanted to be different in our organization. I had a lot of people tell me to start a home for victimized persons. It wasn’t what I felt called to do. There’s a lot of different ways we have to attack this crisis. There’s legislative and law enforcement and on and on. And I thought you know what? Let’s do something different. And let’s get as far ahead of this curve as possible. And so that really was our vision and that’s how we launched the Stop Trafficking Project.
Kristen: Awesome! Well I love meeting people with passion that feel a calling to make the world a better place and act on it! And not everyone can do this full time, but we can all play a little part.
Exploitation of vulnerabilities
Kristen: You talk about exploitation and that there’s more than meets the eye. You also talk about exploitation of vulnerability. Which I think means people are exploiting the vulnerabilities of children. So talk a bit about what is it that kids and parents are not seeing? Let’s go a little deeper. And what are the vulnerabilities that children have that are being exploited?
Russ: The challenge becomes this. As an organization we launched and we exist to end domestic minor sex trafficking. The challenge for people is combatting sex trafficking looks nothing like sex trafficking.
So again, there’s these myths and there’s these misconceptions that people have about this. [They think] “Oh a white van pulls up beside this kid and abducts them off the street and they're tied up, you know, doing horrible things to them downstairs in the basement.”
Well that is so rare. I can’t say it can’t happen or won’t ever happen or hasn’t happened, but it’s so rare. And one of the things that I’m personally passionate about is the foundational reason for existing as an organization. We launched the Stop Trafficking Project to really simplify the most complex issue of human trafficking. Because on a United Nations global scale, there’s 27 categories of human trafficking, $150 billion a year industry; however, if you take all of those 27 categories, Kristen, let’s take child soldiers. Let’s take labor or slavery. Let’s take organ harvesting. Let’s take child sex trafficking. You take all of those. For me, you could boil it all down to three words: It’s always about the exploitation of vulnerabilities.
So when it comes specifically to our kids in America what we’re finding is that one of the places where their vulnerabilities are exploited more than anywhere is when they’re online. And one of the dangerous trends that we are finding in the Midwest (where we operate from) and the Missouri State Highway Patrol (we work closely with them), we are now finding that on average the grooming process is now down to 8 days where a child will be willing to either meet a complete stranger in person they first met online or begin to share those ‘hot pics’, those nudes’ with someone who is asking for them or fall into some level of sexual exploitation.
So we’re now down to a week and a day.
Related: 7 Tactics a Child Predator Uses to Lure Kids: Red Flag Phrases Every Parent Needs to Know
Russ: And part of that I think is because of the increased online activity of students right now with education and entertainment due to COVID-19. And the time of year that we’re recording right now--beginning of September headed into the school year and COVID-19’s been this big thing and we’re seeing vulnerabilities in kids.
And what the vulnerabilities look like is not “I’m finding stranger danger online.” That’s not the vulnerability. The vulnerability is “I’m a lonely kid.”
Kristen: Yep. And how many kids are lonely? I mean seriously. They’re missing their friends. My two year old grandson is lonely. Seriously! It’s gotta be a lot worse for the older kids.
Russ: It is because they feel isolated. And feeling isolated was one of the things we dealt with with kids before COVID. So now what’s happened, the trickle down is they feel depressed. And we see increasingly kids wanting to die by suicide at younger ages. So these become the vulnerabilities.
So people have these wrong ideas. And what I want to tell parents is, “I want you to be absolutely certain that you know exactly what your kids are doing online. And guess what? They’re probably never going to be able to fully monitor everything their kids do online.
Related: 3 Ways Bark Protects Your Child from Porn
More than meets the eye
[I have] a personal goal to help people understand that there’s always more here than meets the eye. Why did my kid do this crazy thing online that I told them not to? Well, there’s more than meets the eye. Maybe they did that because they’re bored. That’s the thing to address. Maybe they did it because they’re lonely. Maybe they did it because they put a picture out there and now they’re scared and they’re ashamed and now they don’t know what to do and so it’s going to go from bad to worse.
Kristen: Right. So it’s going deeper to understand why these kids are doing what they’re doing. Not just slapping a label on them and saying they’re dumb, they’re stupid, they’re a bad kid or anything like that. And I told them not to do it and they did it. But what is the motivation under their vulnerability that creates that vulnerability.
Several years ago the FBI did a report--I think it was also for the Department of Justice. The FBI basically said the risk factor for kids getting “sextorted”, in other words people extorting them for nude pictures, was not that they were getting online and saying sexual things or doing sexual things or anything. The vulnerability was how much time they were online.
So kids that were online and interacting a lot with strangers or other people, they were actually at the highest risk for being sextorted. So it's the amount of time. They’ve shifted their world to a virtual world and their relationships to virtual relationships where they don’t really know the people in person.
Russ: And a lot of times that happens innocently because it’s not like they just get online and immediately there’s a stranger. That happens, but more often it’s me and my friend are connecting and we’re maybe starting to talk about some stuff and some topics we maybe really shouldn’t be talking about. And we let another friend of a friend of a friend into our little online world. And now all the sudden there’s this nefarious character hanging around out there and that’s one of the patterns where we see kids really falling into where they’re just getting into really big trouble.
And that’s where this concern--we’ve got a week and a day--to once that activity happens, where this grooming process is kicking in to where a kid is actually willing to follow through on something that most parents would never dream their kid would follow.
Kristen: Yeah because we don’t have the brain of a child. So we think in adult ways. And our children have children’s brains who have not fully developed that prefrontal cortex, that thinking brain that we need to help our children develop.
Related: 5 Ways Kids’ Brains are Super Susceptible to Porn
What's the vulnerability in the kid that I care about?
Kristen: So we have this broad subject of when kids get online. But where are kids most vulnerable? When you say vulnerable what are we talking about?
Russ: We’ve heard these anecdotes, and I know it’s happened, that you know a kid’s in school doing online stuff and somebody hacked into their Zoom. So those things happen. Honestly that’s not really where our priority is. Our priority really is when kids are gaming and when they’re in apps specifically designed to communicate with people.
Now listen, when kids are feeling lonely and isolated and depressed, guess what they need? They can’t be with their friends. Technology is actually providing some amazing space for kids to connect! So the thing for parents and guardians to process and really think through is there’s more here than meets the eye. I don’t just want to blame technology. No, there’s more here than meets they eye.
Technology itself is not the problem. Because we know there’s wonderful companies doing amazing things like Covenant Eyes and Bark and so many others that you can put technology on your technology to keep you safe from technology.
But it comes down to what’s the vulnerability in the kid I care about. And so when they’re using that amazing app, that they can put all these fun things on--make my tongue fourteen feet long--and all those fun little things we can do, right? It’s ok! Nothing wrong with that! But what’s the underlying thing there if I’m in that space as a kid and my frontal cortex isn’t fully developed and someone reaches out to me and keeps pushing, keeps pushing, keeps pushing?
You know, you made the great point earlier, Kristen, when you said the vulnerability is the more time we spend online. It’s no different than if we go into the grocery store. If I’m in and out and get what I want, I’m good. If I stay there awhile, “Oh, I don’t really need this, but I think I’m going to go down this aisle, maybe…”
So it’s no different for our kids. They’re on their favorite app and someone says “Hey check this out! You need to see this!” And all the sudden they’re on another site or they’re in another social media app. Or maybe they’re on that gaming system and they’re communicating with someone and that person says “Hey! I want to show you something.”
And what we’re finding increasingly is that this is getting at younger and younger ages--we’re talking kids between ages 7, 8 and 9--who we’re finding now, and this has happened during COVID, we’re finding those kids producing what we would call images ripe for sextortion. That’s where we’ve just got to be really careful. Because that gets into the deepest, darkest, most nefarious place the parents or guardians will go “I don’t want to talk about this!” But we have to.
A frightening real-life example
Kristen: Well I know you had been speaking at a lot of schools up until COVID. So you have a lot of examples. You know we can talk about these problems, but you have some stories that I want you to share with our audience about some of these kids that have gotten victimized and pulled in and the results.
So can you share a few of those stories with us? Of how kids are really impacted? And these are average kids in the Midwest from average families. We’re not talking that these kids are always disadvantaged kids that have tough family situations. Some of these kids are from perfectly healthy, functional families right?
Russ: Yeah so let me just give you the most current example, not even from being in school. Last week I was speaking at a Chamber of Commerce event and four families within fifteen minutes approached me and began to unpack their stories.
One of them was of a couple. Great home. So a lot of times we think of maybe a foster kid? Yeah, they’re vulnerable. Or it’s someone in poverty? Yeah, they’re vulnerable. It’s someone who has been harmed in some way maybe by a family member at an early age? Yeah they’re vulnerable. But my kid? Not my kid.
Related: Sex Addiction Expert Explains Why Good Kids Get Pulled Into Porn
We both work. We’re Chamber of Commerce members! And they unpack the story and the story was their daughter, first week of middle school, encounters someone online and they said it took one week. Remember I said we’ve got a week and a day? They said we’re not exactly sure yet what happened in that one week, but our daughter changed. We lost our daughter.
And to unpack the story for them in a way to keep everyone protected, it became so extreme so fast that just a handful of weeks ago this girl made a serious attempt at ending her life. I mean the things that she did, she’s very fortunate to be alive. And yet she is still not recognizing the role that social media played in her vulnerabilities being exploited online. To the point to where they actually had to make the decision to pull her out of public school. They’re homeschooling her. They’ve taken all of her devices away.
But she has friends who are giving her devices on the side and the day after they contacted me they found images of their daughter in a beyond compromising situation again, with yet another male on another phone.
Related: 5 Reasons Why Social Media is Not Smart for Middle School Kids
So what happens is these kids, and for this particular girl, the parents have tremendous insight and wisdom into what their daughter’s facing. Remember it’s not the technology. It’s what’s happening with my kid. Right now the vulnerability in this very young girl is shame and anger and physical and emotional pain that she’s not quite sure how to deal with.
And so the one place that she’s familiar with is, as difficult as it sounds, there’s this level of trauma bonding that kicks in at younger and younger ages online that we’re seeing in increasing levels to where they think “Ok, at least I’m being validated here.” Because she’s kind of at that rebellious phase right now where mom and dad don’t know anything. But this person online, these people online, this group of boys online, these men online--they’re telling me what I want to hear. So this girl has a wall up.
That’s a recent story. So it’s in school. It’s out of school. It’s wherever. The common denominator, honestly, is when kids are online. They don’t have to be in school. They can be on summer vacation. The common denominator is what’s happening online.
The role of pornography
Russ: One of the things I want to talk about a little bit is the role of pornography in this.
Kristen: I was just going to ask you about this. Because people tend to think of this like in a silo. There’s this silo of sex trafficking. There’s this silo of child abuse, etc. But really, pornography is fueling all of this.
So in Good Pictures Bad Pictures what we’re trying to do is help parents at a very young age teach their children the dangers of pornography. The one concrete thing we talk about is addiction, but there’s so many other problems that come with early exposure to pornography. And we need to teach kids this disposition, this mindset, that pornography is not something that’s going to be my friend. It’s not going to help me. It’s going to hurt me. And it’s going to hurt the world and even my friends.
So tell us more about your experience and how you see the role of pornography in all the problems that you see kids are having.
Russ: One of the really scary patterns we saw before COVID shut down all of our school presentations in March was the overwhelming number of boys and girls that would approach us after our presentation was completed. Remember I said there’s always more than meets the eye? They began to talk about issues in life and struggles and we just let them talk. And here was the scary pattern. Self harm, through cutting primarily, and as we began to dig deeper, asking “Why are you doing this, buddy? Why are you doing this sweetheart?”
“Well, there’s naked pictures of me online.”
And the way those pictures got there was a number of different ways. Sometimes they felt manipulated and coerced forced into it. Sometimes it was just “I actually like the way I look and I like the attention I’m getting from it.” I’ve heard those stories too. And everything in between. But what it led to was “I’ve actually considered dying by suicide.”
In February I was at a school and because of the weather at the time in the Midwest, I was at a school on a Thursday and they already knew they were going to be shut down on Friday because there was a snow and ice storm coming through.
I got done with a presentation and a little girl in 7th grade came up to me, tears coming from her eyes. [She] showed me the cuts on her arms, began to unpack the picture of how and why there are naked pictures of her online and then she looked me in the eye and she said, “I’m so glad you’re here today because I’ve already written my note and it’s in my drawer at home. I was going to die by suicide on Saturday." We happened to be there on Thursday to unpack this issue with kids and so was able to connect her with a caring counselor at the school.
The same school, this was in February, I had a little boy who was in 6th grade. He hasn’t gone through puberty yet. He’s standing there, his face is down and he’s not looking at me. And I know what he wants to talk about.
And I looked at him and said, “Buddy, remember there’s no shame with me. You can tell me anything.” In our assembly we talk about how there’s no shame here.
He looks up and he looks me in the eye and in this squeaky little voice, this precious kid, he says, “Mr. Tuttle.” He called me Mr. Tuttle. That’s respect. A great kid. That’s a good kid. “Mr. Tuttle have you heard of this thing called PornHub?”
I said, “Yes, buddy, I’ve heard of it.”
He says, “I’m addicted. I stumbled onto it accidentally when I was in the second grade.” He’s now a sixth grader, he’s got four years of this.
Kristen: You would never think to look at these kids.
Russ: You would never think. And he said “The way you talk about pornography, thank you for telling me the truth about this because it feels like my brain’s on fire. Can you please help me?”
Again, we connected him with a great counselor there at the school and other people in the community so that we could help this kid.
One of the things, years ago when we started these school presentations, my goal was I want to keep kids safer in this context of there’s horrible people out there looking to do horrible things by exploiting the vulnerabilities in our kids.
And at least in the worst case scenarios is crime-we call domestic minor sex trafficking. In between that there’s all kinds of horrific sexual exploitation. So my goal was, let’s put this together to keep kids safer. We found when you tell the kids the truth, they respond.
Preventing kids from becoming the predators
Russ: Now because of pornography, another goal is this: We’ve got to figure out ways of keeping kids from becoming predators themselves. Because of the activity that we’re starting to see now.
I had two sixteen year old boys approach me within a couple months of each other.
The first one came up, thanked me for talking about the truth about pornography. Again, stumbled across it by accident as a young boy. His fear was this--he said, “I’m now fantasizing about hurting girls the way I view it on pornography and these girls are my friends. I feel like I’m out of control, please help.”
Russ: So grateful for this kid. [He's] not a bad kid. The science of the brain was happening. These are not bad kids. It’s one of the things I want adults and guardians to understand. Because there’s more than meets the eye. And I get really frustrated with parents and guardians when they say “These kids these days. Can’t believe what these kids these days are doing.” And it goes beyond that.
Related: Sexual Assault Nurse Links Porn to Child-on-Child Abuse: Interview with National Expert Heidi Olson
The other sixteen year old boy, similar story. Good looking kid, he’s like 6’2”, 185 pounds, kind of the stud athlete in the school. Walks up, tears coming down his face before we say a word to each other. I know what he’s going to talk about.
Same story--stumbled onto pornography at a young age, but then his took a little different twist. He said, “Pornography prepped me for when the twenty-one year old smokin’ hot naked woman sent me pictures of her. I was ready to respond immediately.” He recognized that pornography played a role.
He met her twice in person. Because I was like “Dude, time out. I’ve heard this story before.” Because we know how creepy men copy and paste pictures of females, send it to young boy, try to meet them. I’m like, “Are you sure this was a woman?”
He said, “Yeah I met her twice.” And in teenage vernacular, he said, “We hooked up.” He said the third time, she invited him to a party. He said he showed up and she wasn’t there, but there was a house with men in it waiting for him.
That’s in the world of domestic minor sex trafficking. She’s a spotter. Probably being paid.
Kristen: She reels them in.
Related: #MeToo — 10 Ways Predators Are Grooming Kids
Pornography and girls
Russ: So now the myth is--ok pornography and boys. Get it. Ok let’s talk about pornography in girls. Because I increasingly have boys come to me and say, “I’ve been friends with this girl since first grade, Kindergarten, fourth grade...whatever...and she all the sudden sent me naked pictures of herself that I didn’t even ask for. What is she doing?”
I recently, before Covid shut us down, this was again in February, I was at a rather prominent private Catholic school in the Kansas City area. At the end of the presentation I had eleven girls in eleventh and twelfth grade come to talk to me, very seriously, and challenged me on some of the things I was giving push back on during my assembly. This was the gist of what they said.
“We actually like how we look naked online and we enjoy the attention we’re getting from men.”
And so I began to drill down. “Why are you feeling this way?”
All they said was that it was kind of what they were being ‘taught’ through pornography.
So there’s an expectation. And so what we need to understand as parents and guardians is there’s just three words: it’s about the exploitation of vulnerability. So if the kids are coming at this--and now we’ve got this vicious cocktail of pornography that we add to “I’m a lonely kid. I’m a sad kid. I’m a depressed kid. Maybe I’m being bullied online.” You add to that the vicious effects of pornography. We’ve got to pay attention to this. Because then where that leaves kids is they react. And typically in the immediacy of the moment because they’re not thinking it through because the prefrontal cortex isn’t [developed].
Kristen: Right. They’re impulsive. And they can become very compulsive because their brain isn’t developed and no one has walked them through all of the issues related to porn and how porn will teach them to objectify themselves.
And we use this word objectification, just trips off the tongue, but when you really think of how dehumanizing it is to turn your body into a product for someone else’s consumption and that’s all you’re worth.
Related: Your Daughter’s Body Image – Healthy or Shameful? 4 Ways to Counteract Toxic Media
And social media just amplifies this trend because the sexier, the hotter the picture that you post on Instagram, or wherever, the more likes you’re going to get. And girls learn this at a very young age. The more attractive they are, the more hot they are the more likes they get and the more attention they get. And this is amplified and taught explicitly in pornography.
Pornography isn’t about two loving people that get together and have sex and we’re just kind of showing this. No! It’s all about exploitation and objectification.
So these messages are so clear to these kids and they may not be aware of them. But it really goes through and then they’re objectifying themselves. And it’s not just the pornography. It’s our whole culture.
Related: Healthy Sex vs. Porn Sex: 7 Crucial Comparisons to Teach Your Kid (Before XXX Hijacks Their Future)
Child-on-child harmful sexual behavior
You mentioned earlier about child-on-child harmful sexual behavior. I was at a symposium we hosted--Protect Young Minds helped host this symposium with the National Center on Sexual Exploitation a year or so ago, and it is a disturbing trend how children are watching pornography, they are wired to imitate what they see adults do, and so then they naturally, many of them, want to try this out on a younger, more vulnerable child. And they find a younger sibling, they find a cousin, or a friend next door. And then you’ve got a child-on-child [abuse situation]. You can call it abuse. You can call it harmful sexual behavior.
But you know, you worry about your child being a victim of child abuse, wait until you have a situation where your child, your good kid, has now been pulled in to [pornography] and has become, now predator is a very strong word, but, you know has begun to victimize other children, and you’ve got a huge problem.
And if you’re in the right state and you can get help, then thank your lucky stars. But our justice system, our juvenile system across the United States has not caught up with this problem. In some states they’re going to be put into juvee (juvenile detention), they’re going to be slapped on a sex offender registry, which they may be there for the rest of their lives. This is a huge problem.
Related: Juvenile Judge Warns Parents! Is Your Child at Risk for Harmful Sexual Behavior? (Solid Advice for Prevention and Resources)
So we know the problems. Pornography teaches kids to objectify themselves. It sexualizes them at a young age, they get addicted, sometimes they act out on this and that feeds sex trafficking and that feeds a lot of problems with kids and just sets them up to want to act out sexually. But that just is normative. Right? It’s normal.
Related: Sexual Behavior in Children: What’s Normal? What’s Harmful?
What parents CAN DO
Kristen: So give us some hope. What can we do? What can we do to help kids and what are we going to do as a preventative?
Russ: The preventative, honestly, is the most important thing. One of the things we’re finding is that when we’re able to go to students directly, it’s one model that works. That’s why your books are so important. It’s why we promote your books. At younger and younger ages we have to get those into the hands of caring adults.
Russ: And caring adults have to understand that they have to become a safe landing spot for their kids. Their kids are going through levels of trauma. Now that may seem like a rather over-the-top term, but you stop and think about the things kids are going through, there are levels of trauma at certain ages that you as an adult forgot what that was like in second grade. Well that’s traumatic to them. And if we’re not going to be a safe place starting earlier on, then when it gets later in life and they’re experiencing something online that is truly at a nefarious level, they’re not going to go to you as a trusted adult. Why would they?
Related: Helping the Kid Who Doesn’t Want Help
1. Be careful with the technology
So for the parent who’s behind the curve already? I hear this all the time. I’ve got a sixteen or seventeen year old daughter and it’s too late for me to start this now if I’m going to implement some new things. It’s never too late. They’ll tell me all the time, “It’s going to be like a world war.” Yeah. But you know World War I was worth fighting, but you don’t win the whole war at once. It’s a battle. So pick your battles.
So maybe it’s as simple as, for a younger parent, determine now that you’re not going to get them technology at really young ages. One of the movements I love is the Wait Until 8th movement. There’s groups of parents around the country, they’ve almost covenanted with each other that we’re not going to let our kids get a cell phone until they’re in the eighth grade. It’s not eight years old, it’s eighth grade.
And when they get that cell phone there’s not going to be a lot of internet options on that thing. Well you’re not keeping up with the Joneses very well on that one. But yeah, guess what? I’m not supposed to be my kid’s best friend I’m supposed to be their parent. And this is a boundary that we’re going to put around that.
Kristen: So that’s one thing, be careful with the technology, knowing that you’re kid is going to have access maybe through other friends, but they themselves don’t have a portal to porn in their pocket 24/7. We have a couple of articles on Protect Young Minds that talk about a four step plan to help you start with technology and grow them and mentor them so that as you give them more and more access they are showing more responsibility and the ability to handle it. To give a kid a smartphone in second, third, fourth grade, you should just expect major problems with that move.
So yes, Wait until 8th, man I wish they would wait until sixteen years old.
Kristen: But, as long as you have a plan and you are increasing the responsibility and they are following the guidelines that you set with the lower technology, then at some point you can bump it up to a little bit more. That is what we need to do.
Kristen: So that’s the first thing you’re talking about is don’t just...give kids the keys to my huge truck--go have fun and you’re only seven years old. Make sure that you have mentored them and that you know what they can get into as well on that technology.
Russ: Yep. Because if you don’t I’ve had girls as young as second grade show me their Tinder account. Tinder is an adult dating hook up app.
Kristen: Second grade?! Tinder?
Russ: She had seventeen adult men she was communicating with and most of it was sexual content. And she’s second grade. Why does that second grader have a phone?
Kristen: That’s an eight year old!
Kristen: Yeah, blow your mind.
Ok so one thing is be very careful with technology. So that’s the first thing. What are some other things?
2. Know the vulnerability in your kid
Russ: So the second thing is please know the vulnerability in your kid. That’s honestly more important than the technology. We have to understand the role technology will play in the vulnerability in the kid you care about potentially being exploited. Let’s just come to that agreement. So yes, there’s the technology, so do everything you can within your power to protect that technology by using other technology, using cell phone contracts, whatever you need to do.
But the next thing is, and this is going to be different for every family, for every kid because every kid’s vulnerability does not look like the next kid’s vulnerability. So know the kid you care about.
Kristen: Know your kid, yeah.
Russ: And so that plays into the family unit first and that extends into our churches and our schools and the groups in your neighborhood, contextually, the kids that hang out, [they’re] friends that come over to your house because they’re going to hang out with [your kid]. Pay attention to the vulnerabilities in those kids. And be vigilant about that.
One of the things that is important about that is don’t ever say, “Not my kid,” or “Not the kid that I care about.” I’ve found that kind of on a geographical sense adults fall into this: “Well, we’re urban core. We’re downtown people. So that can’t happen to my kid because we’re too street smart.” Wrong. “We’re suburbs. We got it going on out here. We’re all fine. It can't happen to my kid.” Wrong. “We’re ultra-rural. We leave the black lab in the back of the pickup truck, he’ll be there in eight hours. We never lock the doors. Can’t happen to my kid.” Wrong. Because the common denominator is when those kids are online with their vulnerability, the more time they spend there.
So monitor. The technology part has so many bullet points to unpack. Know every password your kid has. That phone is your phone. It’s yours. You’re not invading their privacy.
Kristen: Right. Never give a kid technology. Lend them your technology.
Kristen: Never give a kid an iPad. You know, say, “Here’s an iPad. It’s mom and dad’s iPad, but you can use it under these conditions." And then it’s always mine to pull back. There’s a different psychology to give a kid technology, then they think “It’s mine. And if it’s mine then I can make decisions around it and I can do whatever I want with it.” And no, you can’t. So don’t give kids technology, lend them technology and make sure you are very clear about the terms of that technology.
You talk about emotional resilience. Knowing their issues. We have a lot of articles on Protect Young Minds about emotional resilience. We’ve done surveys and found that our followers are very concerned about developing emotional resilience in children so that they are less vulnerable to these dangers.
So this last year we have been putting out for our subscribers every month a Resilient Parenting Challenge, which describes one way--whether it’s increasing your child’s confidence or their feeling of control or the competence--all these things that add to emotional resilience. So important because if you take an emotionally vulnerable child and then you add technology, that’s like adding fuel to the flame. You know, gas lighter fluid on a little barbecue. It’s going to magnify the vulnerabilities that they have.
So emotional resilience is really, really important.
Russ: When we encourage people we tell them this: Pay attention to the technology, yes, because that’s why parents are coming to us-that’s their number one concern. Ok let’s get that out of the way. There’s things you can do. Second, you’d better know your kid.
3. Don't start expecting your kid to fail
Third, don’t start with your kid from this default position--”I’m expecting you to be all messed up in this. I’m expecting you to fail. I’m expecting you to have technology and you’re just going to find the worst stuff on there.” Don’t START with that premise! There’s not a person in the world that wants to be shamed into or out of doing something. So you encounter that kid who’s made a mistake, don’t shame them right out of the gate.
Understand it’s not “These kids these days.” Ok, it’s the adult that gave the second grade girl the cell phone. Now you’re crying to me because your daughter’s got seventeen adult men who are potentially sexually exploiting her online. Ok so in that moment, I don’t have very many mercy gifts with parents like that. But it’s not going to do me any good to shame that parent in that moment. MOST parents are just not thinking this through.
So that’s why your books are important. That’s why all the different organizations doing similar things to what we do is critically important and we get out there ahead of the curve, before the vulnerability can be exploited. That’s really critical.
So for the parents, don’t start from that default position, put the parameters in place. It’s the classical example of we’ve got to build a fence at the top of the cliff, because it’s better to put our efforts there than to put a bunch of ambulances at the bottom of the cliff after they fall off.
And that’s what’s going to happen and that’s what is happening for far too many kids. Again, if we’re down to a week and [a] day in the grooming process before a kid is willing to engage in some of the most nefarious things most parents or guardians would say would never be my kid. If that’s the pattern, then we just have to be honest about that as adults who care about kids and [know] we’ve got to build a fence around the top.
So understand that’s your technology. Knowing the vulnerabilities in kids. And then don’t start from that default position.
4. Find POSITIVE resources
And another thing I would add is continue to learn and get every resource possible that is positive. There are resources out there that start from a negative place. That’s why I love your books. I love what you do. So start from the positive place with your kids because that’s going to motivate them. Listen, people are happier when they’re around happy people. So people are less likely to fall into really dangerous patterns online when they’re hanging out with people who are exercising safe patterns online.
5. Set the example
So you as a parent need to set that example first. So I know you're working from home. And I get that there’s a lot of things happening online. But you’ve got this thing--and maybe you’re just now taking your time to flip through whatever the apps are that you use. And your kid comes to you and says I need to talk to you, but you’re too busy on social media yourself. Well, guess what? We’ve just set a really bad example.
So as parents and guardians we have to lead by example. And honestly, we’ve all been to restaurants when they used to be open, and seen the family of four and the dad and the mom and the son and the daughter--everybody’s looking at their devices.
Kristen: Yeah. I’ve seen this. And I’ve also seen this father and son at Costco and the mom has the cart and the dad is just going around with his device, just looking [down]. And the poor little son, he’s got to be seven or eight years old. And he just keeps looking up. Dad never talking to him, Dad’s always on the phone. I just wanted to go up to that father and say, “Do you see what’s happening here?”
But I’ve been guilty of that myself. I remember this one time when my grandson was over and I got this really strong thought in my head that said, “You need to put down your device when this [child is here].” And he was only like one and a half years old. “You cannot be on your device around your grandchildren and be giving more attention to [it] than them.” And it kind of was like a smackdown, and I was like “Ok. Ok.”
But I think that we do need to set a good example and we can. And you know, all of us have been sucked into technology. It’s designed to suck us in and keep us there as long as possible. These people that make Facebook and Instagram and all these, they know how the brain works, they know the dopamine patterns, so they exploit that to keep us online so they can send us more ads.
This is well-known, but most of us out there don’t totally understand that.
Related: Screen Time and the Brain: Expert Advice on Electronic Addiction and Teaching Kids Healthy Tech Habits
Summing it up
Kristen: So I think what I’m hearing you say is
#1 Be proactive. Don’t get full by this deception that only ‘bad’ kids get in trouble. Or only kids from ‘bad’ families get in trouble with bad pictures. And that porn is shameful, but it’s not shameful to talk about. And it’s really not shameful if you’ve been hurt by it, even, because it does exploit the vulnerabilities of children. So make sure that you’re being proactive.
You know, Russ, I get the question a lot “What if I talk to my child about pornography and then they go and look for it. Then I’m guilty of introducing pornography to them." I tell them, look, you are not going to make your kid more curious than all these sexual cues that are coming in, all the sexual cues around them. Let me tell you, you cannot do worse than what is already happening. So the safest bet is to be proactive and do it sooner than you think. Sooner is safer--love the hashtag, right?
#2 Make sure that you’re handling the technology, not giving it to them too early, stepping it up.
#3 Taking care of those emotional vulnerabilities. Knowing your child, understanding their emotional needs, and then understanding how they could be searching to get that emotional need fulfilled through being online. We are trying to deal with that at Protect Young Minds.
And also we’ve come out with this Brain Defense™Digital Safety where we talk a lot about safe screen habits and good technology habits. And this is what we really need to teach our kids is how to deal with the technology so that they benefit from it but are not hurt by it. Right? So that it helps them, doesn’t hurt them.
Well, Russ. Thank you so much for being with us today and everything.
Russ: You’re welcome.
Kristen: Is there one last bit of advice you want to throw out to parents with all of your experience?
Russ: Yeah, I will say this: Kids want to be told the truth and you need to believe in them, because I wouldn’t be doing what I’m do if I didn’t actually believe in students. And at younger and younger ages, we know this, it’s common sense, they’re more teachable. And as the graphs go-- because we give kids surveys, measuring their vulnerabilities and then the impact that our presentations make--as younger and younger they’re more teachable and they’re willing to make changes and they’re less vulnerable. As they get older, the vulnerability increases and they become less teachable. So this is why your books are so important at the youngest ages.
One of our strategies in the Midwest is we’re working on a strategy to get into schools to where a student would be able to participate in one of the strategies that we offer to school at least three times through their school career. We would hope that they would experience something we offer in elementary age, middle school/junior high, and then high school to kind of reinforce that through the entire process in the school district.
Kristen: That’s great.
Russ: There has to be consistency on the part of parents and adults and guardians. Be consistent. Be compassionate. And then don’t be compulsive, to go “Oh my word my kid made a whole thing, we’re just going to rip the internet out of the house!” That’s not helpful. Exercise wisdom in this and understand that, honestly, a lot of times you’re not arguing with your kid in these situations, you’re arguing with a fantasy. Because they are increasing fantasy worlds for themselves.
And this is the last thing--kids have fake accounts. So parents you think that you know everything your kids are doing, you got all their Snapchat and Instagram and Omegle and Kik and TikTok and all that. Well guess what? They typically will have a fake account you have no clue about. Especially the kids that are really desperate to make connections with other people. So don’t point fingers and [say] “Bad kids!” But we do have kids doing some bad things online. So there’s a big difference there.
Kristen: And some harmful things.
Russ: BELIEVE IN OUR KIDS!
Kristen: Thank you so much Russ. This has been really illuminating. One of the big things that we’re trying to do is increase the awareness of parents so that they are empowered to raise screen-smart and emotionally resilient children. And to really take advantage of all the wonderful things around technology, but be protected from it.
Thank you so much Russ. We really appreciate all of your experience and everything that you’re doing. Thank you so much.
Russ: Likewise. Take care.
Good Pictures Bad Pictures
"I really like the no-shame approach the author takes. It's so much more than just 'don't watch or look at porn.' It gave my children a real understanding about the brain and its natural response to pornography, how it can affect you if you look at it, and how to be prepared when you do come across it (since, let's face it... it's gonna happen at some point)." -Amazon Review by D.O.