Expressing vulnerability online

With the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, the number of youth online since 2020 has exceeded 1.5 billion (Source: United Nations). This considerable number has led to a deep revisit of mental well-being and the consequences of internet safety. Vulnerability expressed online by the youth is a magnet for predators and traffickers, who will identify youth they feel are isolated from their family and peers. 


Feeling validated, seen & heard

We all want to feel we belong. Connecting to others is important for our well-being. Feeling validated, seen, and heard helps us navigate through life in a healthy manner. This is why strong friendships and being surrounded by people we trust is essential to our very survival. Youth who have a strong circle of friends are less likely to become targets of bullying than those who are socially excluded or isolated. Healthy friendships can also foster an environment in which the youth can develop social skills and self-esteem. They can also provide emotional support. Young children and teens who do not have trusted friends or strong circles are more likely to have high levels of depression, anxiety, and psychosomatic complaints, as well as high levels of aggression, hyperactivity, and inattention. When the youth are not surrounded by emotional support, they will turn to the internet for solace. And this is where learning to stay safe is extremely important.

What does being unsafe look like?

Distress, humiliation, isolation, shame, anxiety, low self-esteem, self-harm, addiction, suicidal ideation, and suicide are some of the effects of your online information being used against you. This vulnerability is what attracts online predators, who zero in on what makes the youth feel most vulnerable. Along with vulnerability is feeling overwhelmed and powerless. It is difficult to feel safe if you feel you have been violated. The issue with being online is that these feelings can invade your home through a computer or cell phone at any time of day. Where do you escape this? It’s everywhere and dark emotions can take over. In addition, because predators can remain anonymous, this realization may escalate feelings of fear. Sometimes youth who are targeted may have no idea who is inflicting the pain, although some predators may choose people they know and have no problem identifying themselves.


How being unsafe online can lead to human trafficking

Who do traffickers target online? Generally, someone young who is feeling vulnerable, alone or misunderstood.

It can be that easy to start a conversation with someone you do not know. The use of social media has made it easier for traffickers to target children and teens, often using coded messages or emojis to hide their activities. This phenomenon is magnified during times of globalization, making it easy for traffickers to find and exploit youth they perceive as vulnerable. The massive difference that social media have made to the trade in human trafficking can be summed up by its organizational structure. When looking at the structures of criminal groups, many share a similar organizational pattern where users are connected vertically within an enterprise. This is how most human trafficking incidents are managed, with predators communicating and collaborating with each other through social media platforms.

Online communication can lead to recruitment to transfer and transport, then manipulation of consent through blackmail, the actual exploitation of the young person targeted, and finally, post-exploitation. One of the dangers here is, for example, blackmailing victims by threatening to share pictures of them being exploited on social media – leading to their social exclusion by their friends and communities.   


Have the 'uncomfortable' conversation

When you get into that dark place which is quiet, it’s easy to stay in it. You get complacent and you find it more easy to play some games with your one friend instead of talking about it because you feel ashamed.

—Jackson, 16 (attempted suicide at age 14)

The more uncomfortable the conversation, the more important it is to have it. 

How many parents/adults have looked at changes in a teenager’s behavior and said something like, “it’s teenage moodiness” or “it’s hormones” or “it’s just a phase”? How many of you teens out there have been told, “it’s just these years. This depression, you’re going to get through it” or “you’re strong”? There is a communication gap here, don’t you think? Or actually, no communication at all. Lack of conversation about what is considered “uncomfortable” for teens and parents can lead to some young people falling through the cracks, self-harming or attempting suicide. 

What are some of the ways out?

TEENAGERS: Reach out to your parents or an adult or a close friend you trust. It is OK to let the walls down and allow people in your inner circle see what you are going through. You need to reach out and advocate for yourself to get the help you need.

PARENTS/ADULTS: Initiate a conversation, even if it is uncomfortable at first. Do not try to “fix” what’s going on but just listen. Explaining your emotions (“I feel angry about…” or “I was anxious about … today”) encourages children to express theirs. The earlier, the better. Trying to be perfect is not only impossible—we are human—but will alienate you from your children, who might feel they need to live up to expectations they simply are unable to. Add this to the pressures they feel from social media and the results can be toxic.


If you are in doubt, do not be ashamed to reach out to a trusted adult. You can always reach us at Youth Underground info@youth-underground.com and we will do our best to guide you to the right resources. 

Check this link for emergency numbers worldwide. 

Protect yourself. Educate yourself. Empower yourself.

You’ve got this and you are not alone!



► Take a short security checklist here to find out if you are keeping safe online.