Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, law enforcement agencies and nonprofit organizations have issued dire warnings that the intense isolation and increased time online would lead to higher rates of child sex trafficking.
In October, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) noted that reports of online child sexual exploitation had doubled in 2020 compared with the previous year. The anti-trafficking charity Polaris said in June that calls to the National Trafficking Hotline had spiked 40% over pre-pandemic rates.
Most of these warnings focused on the risk of children being approached by online predators. The FBI said abusers were joining multiple social media platforms to target kids. Local media published stories declaring the pandemic was “giving sex predators more access to children.” NCMEC Vice President John Shehan said state lockdown orders could increase opportunities for offenders to groom children online.
“Child predators are using the dark net to discuss stay-at-home orders and use the opportunity to entice children to produce sexually explicit material,” an NCMEC spokesperson told Forbes magazine.
While the coronavirus has indeed increased the risk of abuse for children, experts said these perils are more closely related to family members and cuts to social services than to strangers on the internet.
“The young people we see are overwhelmingly kids who ran away from foster care or fled from their parents because they’re queer or experienced abuse,” said Laura Nagel, a program manager with the Center for Children and Youth Justice, a Washington state-based nonprofit that helps families navigate the welfare system.
Nagel and her colleagues conducted a survey of social workers and nonprofits to find out how children’s needs and risks had changed during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. The most common risks were children quarantined with unsafe people and verging on...