So what’s the problem? Lurking behind the glow of a computer screen is THE BUYER, writes Johanna Downey

Caledon Enterprise Johanna Downey Monday, February 24, 2020

Johanna Downey
Councilor, Johanna Downey,

I sat down and spoke with my 13-year-old daughter the other day and I was immediately struck with two profound takeaways.

One, little has changed since my time on the black top. School is still a hotbed of cliques, class war and identity crisis with kids under constant pressure, yearning to be noticed. Back then it was Valley Girl; today it’s VSCO Girl.

But take your pick — Home girls, Dancers, Emos, Jocks. It would seem there is a niche for every girl.

Two, life these days for our daughters is not a John Hughes film. I remember a time when adolescence was awkward. I can’t ever recall a time when it’s been this dangerous or heart-wrenching.

In our conversation, she sent me a link to an article: “How online platforms are replacing physical meeting places for kids.”

With screen times exploding, I don’t doubt that’s true. And like the social constructs that have developed in generations of school hallways, the online hierarchy of social groups, stereotypes and status levels also always exists. The external and internal labelling our children experience everyday are alive and well in our schools, but it isn’t just there.

Is there a “cool” group online? Of course there is. We call them influencers. Those individuals that have more likes, more comments, and more followers. And like an addiction, we measure how many people covet our every move. The equation is simple. Followers + Likes = Popularity.

It’s the new math our children practise every day. Fast forward beyond Facebook — the household favourite that started as an online rating system for college dating — to portals that are consuming youth around the globe. From Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube and TikTok, social-sharing platforms have become an integral part of our children’s daily routines.

They are an easy escape for our children where they can showcase their talents or perhaps be inspired by others. A place where they can follow, but in turn be followed and be leaders in their respective genres

Good at sports? Post a video playing sports. Good at drawing? Post a video on how to draw. You can dance? Post a video of some of the most awesome dance moves ever. That’s your “thing,” that’s your “brand.” Today’s kids are effectively branding themselves to the globe for popularity — and it’s working.

So what’s the problem?

Well, lurking behind the glow of a computer screen is THE BUYER. No, life for our teenage daughters is not a John Hughes film.

Behind the likes and the followers is an underworld of predators, and they each have their “thing.” Maybe that thing is girls who play soccer. Maybe it’s girls who like to sing, or do dance routines. Statistics show that if your daughter is on social media she has been contacted multiple times by someone unknown to her. Because she IS their THING. Her selfie, her outfit, her dancing, her brand IS their THING.

We all think our kids are great and beautiful, but let me ask you: if your 11-year-old daughter has 25,000 followers because she can mimic J Lo in her bedroom, is that OK with you? Do you know all 25,000 of them? Is she really that good of a dancer? Or are little girls dancing in their bedrooms a fantasy we are allowing our daughters to participate in (because it’s so innocent) for the fulfilment of some guy’s spank bank?

Would you be OK with your daughter doing the same dance routine on stage in front of 25,000 grown men? I didn’t think so. So why is this global platform any different? We are allowing our children to inadvertently brand themselves into fetishes and genres they don’t understand or comprehend in the context of the Buyer.

Twelve-year-olds don’t know that adult men want to have sex with them. Do they even know what sex is? Are our daughters equipped to deal with strangers asking them to be their “online girlfriend”? Asking them to send them “pictures of her body?”…however underdeveloped it may be.

Every good marketer knows there is a brand for every consumer. The underworld of sex trafficking is no different. If we continue to believe, “not my daughter, she is too young for this,” or “these platforms are innocent,” our naivety will continue to fuel an illicit industry that continues to ruin lives and exploit our children.

Not every online interaction is void of innocence. Some children are only connected to their closest friends, or maybe their aunt or cousins, but that seems to be the exception rather than the rule.

Statistically, Ontario has the highest rate of police-reported human trafficking cases in Canada. Ninety per cent of the victims are female. We need to take a stand and bring those numbers down. Maybe you’re a part of the 20 per cent of parents who have already implemented controls like Disney circle, TimeAway, Screen Time or ParentKIT. Well done — your daughter’s chance of being lured into sex trafficking has been reduced by up to 80 per cent.

Now I wish I could say they can safely carry on being little girls, dancing their little hearts out and making videos with their besties. But I can’t let my guard down.

Because if I do, if I have zero parental controls, zero online security and stop educating my daughter about online interactions, I’ve helped feed a buyers’ market where her brand can be passed around with impunity by a predator so large and so insidious, no price for my vigilance will ever be too great.

Johanna Downey

Peel Regional Councillor, Ward 2 Caledon


Councillor Downey is Chair of Health, Past Vice Chair of Human Services, Member of the Region of Peel Anti-Human Sex Trafficking Task Force, Member of Peel Human Trafficking Service Providers Committee.