Sean Young, PhD, Addresses Human Trafficking

Bound Wrists.jpg

1. National Human Trafficking Awareness day is observed on January 11. As a behavioral scientist working with digital and mobile technologies, how do you see social media helping to monitor and predict human trafficking?

Let me start by saying that I’m not an expert in human trafficking. My expertise is in joining psychology and technology to change and predict real-world problems. We typically partner with experts in different areas to make sure that the solutions we come up with will actually be useful to experts in an area like human trafficking.

Take your question on social media. The low-hanging fruit in social media for human trafficking is in using it to change people. We’ve done a lot of work on how our HOPE intervention can be applied to change people’s behaviors. In the context of human trafficking, this model could be applied in a large number of areas like disclosure, prevention of trafficking, and therapeutic treatment and community support. For example, a HOPE-style group could be implemented for victims to talk about how they’ve been affected and how to overcome stigma around disclosure, which could help prevent or mitigate some post-traumatic effects.

Social media could also address human trafficking through its data. People tend to share anything and everything on social media, as we’ve shown in studies at the UC Institute for Prediction Technology. We can find out all kinds of information about people, their psychology, and their motives based on what they share.

Social media is therefore a monitoring tool that can and should be used in public health organizations. How can this tool be used to solve human trafficking issues? We can mine social data to learn people’s real-time views about trafficking, identify people who may have been victims of human trafficking, and even identify or predict hot spots where human trafficking is about to occur.

2. There are multiple agencies working to dismantle trafficking networks and help survivors rebuild their lives. How does your work fit in with that of NGOs and/or the government in addressing the needs of at-risk populations (e.g., drug users)?

Our research has shown that stigma prevents people from seeking help for things, whether those people are people suffering from anxiety and depression, people at risk for HIV who should get tested, or human trafficking survivors who need help to rebuild their lives. We’ve also discovered a way that helps people overcome this stigma, or discomfort, and seek help.

Survivors of traumatic events like human trafficking need to have peer support for a healthy recovery. Peer support can help them overcome fears that they are alone, can give them a road map for treatment, and can give them optimism that things will get better with time.

3. It’s a common misconception that human trafficking is restricted to developing or war-torn countries. How do we empower young people in resource-flush settings like the United States to speak out if they get involved in a trafficking situation?

There are so many ways that people, regardless of their age, can get involved in causes and improving society. Young people are particularly knowledgeable about new technologies and can use these as tools for solving important global issues. For example, I teach a class at UCLA on how to build low-cost technologies to solve important global health problems and reduce poverty. Students come to class with passion in areas like human trafficking, and a dream to address problems in different areas of the world. Together, we show them that very quickly, for example within 24 hours through a hack-a-thon, they can be part of a team that builds technologies that will address those real-world problems. Some of the students have focused on sex trafficking in India or Southeast Asia and building low-cost technologies like mobile apps that can monitor social data to prevent sex trafficking before it occurs. We then show the students how they can continue to work on these technologies and partner with press and local or global organizations to implement their solution.

4. What is the best way to implement a support community for victims? Also, please address whether support communities should be self-governed or provided by an agency.

Support communities don't function well unless they start with people who are already engaged. Just like marketers have learned the importance of gaining “early adopters” of technologies, support communities for victims need to have people who are willing to use the community and play an active role as soon as it emerges. In our Project HOPE study, we spend a lot of time finding the right attributes of these early supporters to make sure they have the mindset needed to stick with things. Getting early supporters to stay involved in the community and not drop out or lose interest is crucial for building the community and motivating others. We make sure that the right people are selected and that they have sufficient training to accomplish this goal.

After identifying and training early supporters, it’s important to keep them motivated and engaged, as they will keep the community going. We establish a lot of contact with supporters in order to keep them motivated and excited about how they are helping others. Over time, in about 12 weeks we’ve found, an organic community will have been built fro scratch. People will happily and willingly volunteer to become leaders to help other victims within the community. We’ve found in our work that these communities continue to grow stronger over time. People continue to find support and improved health from these communities years later.

Sean Young PhD

UCLA Center for Digital Behavior, Medical Plaza, Los Angeles, CA, 90024, United States

Sean Young, PhD, MS is the Executive Director of the UCLA Center for Digital Behavior. I'm a scientist, innovator, and UCLA medical school professor. I study the science behind human digital behavior (see for more info about this field of research).I also assemble technology teams and solutions to improve UCLA Family Medicine patient care. For more info or to contact me: