NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WECT) - Parents go to great lengths to keep their children safe, but one of the greatest threats to them may be lying in the palm of their hands.
According to Judi Paparozzi, an adjunct professor at UNC Pembroke and an expert on human trafficking, traffickers use social media to target children.
"The world wide market for sex trafficking is 11 to 14 year old our middle schoolers and early high school," Paparozzi said.
Paparozzi has an extensive background in criminal justice, but says she has never seen a crime like this.
"It's a crime where you can lock your car doors, you can lock the doors to your home, but all the criminals in the world come through our cell phones, all of them. Unless we teach our children, this is not safe, it can be safe, but with the privacy settings and the way we have them set nowadays it's not safe," Paparozzi said.
She explained traffickers look to manipulate, lure, and trap younger teens as they are the most vulnerable.
"Because of the threat of AIDS and HIV the virus, as well as STDS, for some reason Johns think that if they have sex with a younger child they have a lower risk of getting aids," she said.
This worldwide problem is happening in southeastern North Carolina too. Paparozzi says it is difficult to prosecute traffickers and often times, people do not notice warning signs.
"There is almost no start up cost, there is very low risk of prosecution because it's a crime that's happening right in front of us and we don't really know it and there are incredibly high profits. Especially with the younger and younger sex slaves that these guys are targeting because they are the easiest to manipulate, to scout, to lure, to trap into human trafficking. And they say once we get that girl we own her," Paparozzi explained.
Paparozzi says there are ways to keep your kids safe from the dangers of social media by partnering with them to teach them about proper use.
"Please give this information to your children, have the talks with them because this is the weapon of the human trafficker and you just gave it to your child," Paparozzi said.
She says having conversations about talking to strangers online is a good start. It is also important to ensure safety settings on all apps are turned on, and location tracking is turned off.
"You wanna be the parents. You don't really want to be a friend when it comes to their phone, you want to be a parent but you want to partner with your child," she said.
She also suggests having frequent 'app nights' where parents and children review app use together, in addition to making sure phones stay with parents when children go to bed.
"The conversations you can have earlier are about strangers and so forth. Then you have to get into when the parents allow cellphones that the strangers now have access to you. But why it's so important is because the kids that have been trafficked 15, 14 13, they're coming not from just one community or one race, they're coming from everywhere. The parents have to understand that if you don't have the conversation it's too late," she said.
Paparozzi recommends using netsmartz.org as a resource for talking with your children.