CHERRY HILL, NJ, May 11, 2014 – In my recently-released book, Walking Prey, I address the fact that many parents believe that their children are immune to the tactics of child sex traffickers. Oh, that would never happen to one of my kids, I often hear from parents living in American suburbia. But the truth is that any child can be susceptible. This is because the very nature of being a child is a risk factor as youth often engage in risky and impulsive behavior. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) offers scientific research on why this behavior in adolescents might be biologically-based: they say a human brain does not reach adult maturation until the early 20s. According to their website, brain scans revealed that gray matter (which forms the cortex of the brain) is at its highest volume (i.e. its least efficiency) in adolescence. The cortex is the area of the brain which controls thought and memory processes. As the brain matures, these areas are “pruned” to allow the brain to work more efficiently.
Those areas of the cortex involved in more basic functions (e.g. controlling movement) mature first, while those areas involved with impulse-control and “planning ahead—the hallmarks of adult behavior—are among the last to mature.” NIMH states: “One interpretation of all these findings is that in teens, the parts of the brain involved in emotional responses are fully online, or even more active than in adults, while the parts of the brain involved in keeping emotional, impulsive responses in check are still reaching maturity. Such a changing balance might provide clues to a youthful appetite for novelty, and a tendency to act on impulse—without regard for risk.”[i]
In a 2011 podcast, Sandra Morgan, R.N., discussed how brain maturation can affect the balance of power between children and adult traffickers: “[The cortex is] where executive decision making is housed,” says Morgan, “You have a major advantage when you’re a 26-year-old adult [and your victim is] a 14-year-old child because executive decision-making is that ability to measure the consequences, to assess the risk, and [to ask oneself] Is this a good choice? Is this responsible? Will this produce a good result for me?”[ii]
In 1992, I was living with both of my parents in a small and rural middle-class town in Southern New Jersey. I had been in the gifted and talented class in elementary school, and I won numerous scholastic awards in intermediate school. However, in middle school, I was not immune to sexual exploitation. At age fourteen, I met a man at the local shopping mall who looked to be about 23 or 25 years old. He called me over to him and, on an impulse, I walked over. We exchanged numbers and began talking on the phone. I believed him when he said that he knew famous people, and I trusted him when he offered a fake ID to get me into dance clubs.
Unbeknownst to me, this man was actually 31 and intending to harm me. Within hours of leaving home to meet him, I was trafficked for commercial sex in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Based on police records, two other adults involved in my case were also over the age of 25. At fourteen, I believed I was capable of making independent decisions. In reality, I was being manipulated and exploited by adults. It took many years for me to understand this, though. I needed time to mature in order to recognize how inexperienced and immature I was at age fourteen.
READ ALSO: Eye to eye: Teaching children self esteem
Daniel Romer, Ph.D., argues that adolescents are naturally prone to experiment with “novel (adult-like) behavior” and that their impulsivity and risk-taking is due to their lack of experience with such behavior as opposed to “a structural deficit” in brain maturation.[iii] Regardless of the root cause, impulsivity and risky behavior are natural and known adolescent attributes, and such attributes are attractive to traffickers. I’ve spent this week speaking at several events across New Jersey in order to spread awareness to parents and community members. I met my trafficker at a local mall, but children and youth today are even more vulnerable than I was in 1992. Just by turning on their cell phones and computers, they run the risk of crossing paths with a stranger and potential predator. It’s important for parents to realize that any child can be at a disadvantage when speaking to a manipulative adult. Furthermore, any additional risk factor(s) experienced by that child can add to his or her vulnerability.
“Changes in the brain take place in the context of many other factors,” states NIMH, “among them, inborn traits, personal history, family, friends, community, and culture.” In my book, Walking Prey, I cover additional factors that are often associated with child victims of commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking. These include running away from home, struggling in school, and being bullied by peers. The greater the number (or severity) of these risk factors, the greater the vulnerability is for that child if he or she encounters a trafficker. I encourage parents to educate their teens on this topic, to empower them with skills and resources to overcome personal dilemmas, and to stay involved in their teens’ lives. Just because your teenager appears to be an adult doesn’t mean he or she is no longer in need of your guidance and supervision.
Written by Holly Austin Smith, author of Walking Prey.
[i]The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), “The Teen Brain: Still Under Construction,” http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/the-teen-brain-still-under-construction/index.shtml (accessed October 27, 2013).
[ii] Sandra Morgan and Dave Stachowiak, “Physiology of Children in Human Trafficking,” Global Center for Women & Children, Vanguard University, Podcast 4, 9:00, http://gcwj.vanguard.edu/eht-podcast/eht4/ (accessed July 29, 2013).
[iii] Daniel Romer, “Adolescent Risk Taking, Impulsivity, and Brain Development: Implications for Prevention,” Developmental Psychobiology 52, Issue 3, February 19, 2010: 264. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/dev.20442/pdf (accessed September 21, 2013).