37-year-old Mom spent 7 days online as 11-year-old girl and learned about sexual predators

Note: This piece contains sexual content and descriptions of child sex abuse that could be disturbing to some readers. The messages, images, and conversations included here are real.

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I’m standing in a bathroom with the hem of a pale blue sweatshirt bunched up under my chin as I weave an ace bandage tightly around my ribcage. The mirror serves as a guide as I wrap and wrap again the bandages around my sports bra, binding my chest. I step out of the bathroom and find our team waiting.

“This look OK?”

I get nods in response, and as Avery art directs, I pose my arms and tilt my head towards the camera. Normally, I’m not in clothes meant for a tween girl. Normally, I don’t have glitter polish on my nails and neon hair ties on my wrist. Normally, I’m dressed, I suppose, like your average 37-year-old mom. Jeans. Shirts that cover my midriff. Shoes with reasonable arch support.

Reid snaps a couple of photos of me. She scuttles off with Avery to our make-shift command center — a repurposed dining room now covered in cork boards and maps and papers and computer monitors. Will’s brow furrows as he quickly edits.

With the help of context — clothing, background, hair styling — and the magic of photo manipulation, we’re no longer staring at an image of me, an adult woman with crow’s feet.

I move to the kitchen to give him space. We’re gearing up for the heaviest part of the day, which we know from experience will be fast-paced and emotionally exhausting.

“It’s ready,” Will calls from the command center. A few of us gather around Will’s computer screen and examine.

“Yeah, I buy it,” Brian says. Brian is the CEO of Bark, the company spearheading this project. Bark uses AI to alert parents and schools when children are experiencing issues like cyberbullying, depression, threats of violence — or in this case, targeting by sexual predators. Currently, we’re covering more than 4 million kids, and we analyze 20 million activities a day. I look at Brian studying the computer screen and consider his assessment. I nod and sigh. I buy it, too.

With the help of context — clothing, background, hair styling — and the magic of photo manipulation, we’re no longer staring at an image of me, an adult woman with crow’s feet. We’re staring at a photo of fictitious 11-year-old Bailey, and no matter how many times we do this, the results are still unnerving. Not because we’re creating a child out of thin air, but because we are deliberately putting Bailey in harm’s way to show exactly how pervasive the issue of predation is for Generation Z.

The majority of 11-year-olds are still prepubescent. Menstruation hasn’t started, and they’re generally not yet wearing bras that are categorized by letter-and-number sizes. Their hobbies and interests vary, but largely, they’re not thinking about sexual relationships or sex organs or sex at all.

But their sexual predators are.

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