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TRAPPED: The Powerful VR Experience for Youth and Counselors to Combat Human Trafficking

Virtual Reality (VR) technology is revolutionizing the way we experience and learn about the world around us.

Among the many applications of VR, education and training are emerging as one of the most promising areas of development.

In particular, VR is being used as a powerful tool for raising about important social issues, such as human trafficking. Radical Empathy Education Foundation‘s experience, “TRAPPED: A VR Detective Story” (also called TRAPPED), is an excellent example of how VR can be used to promote education, prevention, and awareness of the dangers of trafficking.

Watch the entire interactive experience on YouTube (unmute to hear audio)

TRAPPED: A VR Detective Story is an interactive “choose your own path” story that allows the user to direct and control the narrative. The experience places the user in the shoes of Lisa, a 14-year-old girl from the suburbs who became a victim of trafficking through psychological manipulation and coercion. By experiencing the story from Lisa's perspective, the user gains a first-hand understanding of how anyone can become trapped in a trafficking situation.

While the , above, shows you everything a VR user could possibly see, when you are wearing a headset, you can choose to do anything at any time, just like an interactive video game. It's not a movie; you have agency to learn what you want at your own pace and level of interest. (There is also music in the headset version; we left it out here so someone could clip and use this video and Lisa's voice would remain clear and crisp.)

According to Billy Joe Cain, the designer of TRAPPED, the experience is well-received by children, parents, teachers, trainers, medical students, , therapists, school counselors, bankers, and so many others.

“Students speak so openly and begin sharing about really difficult topics”

Cain will never forget was after a group of twenty 12- to 14-year-old students were randomly selected to try the VR experience at their middle school. 

He says, “Eight young girls decided they needed to stay after and talk, so they pulled a bunch of chairs into a circle in a classroom, and their teachers and I talked talked for hours about their shared experience, both what it felt like inside the VR experience and how it intersected with their real lives.”

Cain stressed that “those kids were at the same school, but they didn't know each other before they used the VR. It broke down all sorts of barriers. At the risk of dating myself, it was like being in The Breakfast Club.

Billy Joe Cain and Dawn Maglish at JuST Conference in Fort Worth, Texas
Billy Joe Cain and Dawn Maglish at the JuST Conference in Ft. Worth

Additionally, he says kids and adults alike often disclose personal experiences after they remove their headsets, which indicates the profound impact the experience has on its users.

Students learn how grooming happens and how it feels

The virtual reality experience is not a video: it's totally interactive and computer generated. Police use interactive virtual reality training to raise awareness of human trafficking.

Houston Police Human Trafficking Unit Lieutenant Angela M. Merritt also praised the accuracy of the experience, noting that it is very typical of what she sees on a daily basis while investigating human trafficking incidents

She noted that “It's very real. It's very accurate. It's on point with how they groom them in initial meetings, where they find some type of avenue where the victim may be seeking some type of attention they're not getting at home and they target that area and then they go from there and then it turns into the vicious cycle of control, manipulation, and coercion.

Interactive experiences resonate with students

Terry Hamm
Terry Hamm, Director of the Texas Association of Student Councils

Terry Hamm, Director of the Texas Association of Student Councils, also praised TRAPPED, noting that the interactive nature of the experience resonates with students

The Texas Association of Student Councils chose human trafficking as its project for the 2017-2018 school year, and Hamm invited to exhibit at their annual conference and lead breakout sessions on how TRAPPED can be used in schools. Hamm noted that “we believe students resonate with interactive learning materials, like TRAPPED: A VR Detective Story.”

“Students and faculty have been amazed”

VIDA Vista Innovation Design Academy's Principal Eric Chagala uses VR empathy experience
Vista Innovation Design Academy's Principal Eric Chagala uses the VR empathy experience

Eric Chagala, Principal of Vista Innovation and Design Academy, echoed Hamm's sentiment, noting that the experience is a unique and effective way to educate students about human trafficking

He stated that “this is a real problem, and we want to do our part through this unique approach. Students and faculty have been amazed by the way the virtual reality experience, TRAPPED: A VR Detective Story, makes people care about the educational materials they really must know to recognize a victim and what to do.

State legislator learns facts about trafficking

Tony Tinderholt, a Texas State Representative, also praised TRAPPED for its eye-opening perspective on the triggers that can make children vulnerable to trafficking. He stated that “it's eye-opening to see the triggers, the things that would make children potentially want to do this. Things that you would never think of.”

TRAPPED works as a VR primer for a counseling session

TRAPPED also serves as an important tool for counselors to use in their work with young people, used as a VR primer. According to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, VR can be an effective tool for treating mental health disorders in children and adolescents, particularly anxiety disorders (Gallagher & Cooley, 2020). This suggests that TRAPPED could be particularly useful for counselors who work with young people who have experienced trauma or who may be at risk for trafficking.

In addition to being an effective tool for counselors, TRAPPED also provides a “safe and controlled environment” for young people to explore sensitive topics related to trafficking and exploitation. Research has shown that VR can be a particularly effective tool, as it allows individuals to explore difficult situations and emotions without the risk of physical harm (Yee & Bailenson, 2007).

Having a safe and controlled environment is particularly important when working with young people who may be hesitant to talk about sensitive topics with a counselor or therapist.

TRAPPED: A VR Detective Story logo
TRAPPED: A VR Detective Story logo
TRAPPED screenshot - Kid room looking at teddy from computer
TRAPPED screenshot - in Lisa's childhood bedroom, where you can see her teddy bear, her red dress on her bed, and out the windows to the fall leaves blowing in the wind

An effective tool for counselors and educators alike

TRAPPED‘s immersive and interactive nature can also help to engage young people in their own learning and promote greater retention of the information presented. Research has shown that interactive VR experiences can improve knowledge retention and engagement, particularly when compared to traditional educational methods (Choi & Lee, 2018). This suggests that TRAPPED could be particularly effective for engaging young people in their own education around the dangers of trafficking and exploitation.

International Labour Organization Logo
International Labour Organization logo

In addition to its effectiveness as a tool for education and prevention, TRAPPED also serves as an important tool for raising awareness about the realities of trafficking and exploitation. According to the International Labor Organization, there are an estimated 25 million victims of human trafficking globally, with women and children making up the majority of victims (International Labor Organization, 2021). This highlights the need for greater awareness and education around the dangers of trafficking and exploitation, particularly among young people who may be at risk.

TRAPPED: A VR Detective Story is an important tool for promoting greater understanding and awareness of the dangers of trafficking and exploitation, particularly among young people. Its immersive and interactive nature, combined with its ability to engage young people in their own learning, make it an effective tool for counselors and educators alike. By using TRAPPED as a primer for discussions around sensitive topics, counselors can help to promote greater understanding and empathy among young people, while also helping to prevent the cycle of trafficking and exploitation from continuing.

Topics covered in TRAPPED

Each of these topics are touched upon in the story for TRAPPED, as they are potential risk factors for or have intersections with human trafficking or abuse. These issues can be brought up in counseling or therapy for deeper discussions.

  • Abandonment: Children who experience abandonment or lack of support from their caregivers may become vulnerable to trafficking as they seek for attention, love and care from others.

  • Abortion: Human traffickers may force victims to undergo abortions to avoid legal consequences of their actions, or use the promise of providing abortions as a lure to recruit victims.

  • Assault: Physical and sexual abuse can be used as a means of control and intimidation by traffickers to maintain dominance over their victims.

  • Being abandoned by your father (a parent): Children who grow up without a father figure in their lives may become more susceptible to the manipulation and false promises made by traffickers who offer them what they lack.

  • Broken home: Children growing up in an unstable or broken home environment may be more likely to seek acceptance and stability elsewhere, making them potential targets for traffickers.

  • Coercion: Traffickers often use threats, manipulation, and psychological pressure to coerce their victims into participating in the trafficking industry.

  • Condom usage: Traffickers may force their victims to engage in sexual activities without protection, putting them at risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies.

  • Divorce: Children from divorced families may experience emotional and financial instability, leading them to seek out relationships and situations that may put them at risk of trafficking.

  • Eating disorders: Victims of trafficking may be forced into extreme dieting or have their food intake restricted as a means of control, leading to the development of eating disorders.

  • Extortion: Traffickers may use extortion to maintain control over their victims, such as by threatening to harm their loved ones or revealing sensitive information.

  • False promises: Traffickers often use false promises of a better life, job opportunities, and love to lure vulnerable individuals into trafficking situations.

  • Fighting with your mother (parent): Family conflict can make individuals feel isolated and disconnected from their support network, making them more susceptible to the manipulation and false promises of traffickers.

  • Financial problems: Financial difficulties can make individuals desperate for money and willing to take risks, making them more vulnerable to trafficking recruitment.

  • Gaslighting: Gaslighting is a manipulative tactic used by traffickers to confuse and disorient their victims, making them more susceptible to control and manipulation.

  • : Traffickers may groom their victims by gaining their trust and slowly manipulating them into trafficking situations, often through promises of love or a better life.

  • Internet access: The internet can be used by traffickers to recruit, groom, and advertise their victims to potential buyers.

  • security: Traffickers may use the internet to obtain personal information and to control and manipulate their victims, making online security an important consideration in preventing trafficking.
  • Paying in cash: Cash transactions can make it difficult to trace trafficking activity and can be used to conceal the true nature of the transaction.

  • Pregnancy: Traffickers may force victims to become pregnant, use pregnancy as a means of control, or force victims to undergo abortions.

  • Rape: Sexual violence can be used by traffickers as a means of control and intimidation, and can leave victims traumatized and vulnerable.

  • Romeo pimp: A Romeo pimp is a trafficker who uses charm and the illusion of love to recruit and manipulate victims into trafficking situations.

  • : The rise of social media has made it easier for traffickers to identify and target vulnerable individuals. They can use social media to pose as a friend or romantic partner, gain the trust of their victims, and lure them into trafficking situations.
  • Sneaking out of the house / runaway behavior: When youth sneak out of their homes, they may be at risk of being targeted by traffickers who exploit their vulnerability and lack of supervision. Traffickers may offer them drugs or alcohol, or other incentives, to gain their trust and manipulate them into trafficking situations.

  • Sexually transmitted diseases: Victims of human trafficking are often subjected to sexual exploitation, which puts them at high risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases. These diseases can have serious health consequences and can also make it harder for victims to escape their traffickers.

  • Threatening friends and family: Traffickers may use threats of violence or harm to the victim's friends or family members as a way to control and manipulate them. Victims may fear for the safety of their loved ones and feel compelled to comply with the trafficker's demands.

  • : Trauma bonding occurs when a victim develops an emotional attachment to their trafficker as a result of prolonged exposure to abuse, manipulation, and exploitation. This bond can make it difficult for the victim to leave the situation, even when opportunities to escape arise.

  • Trading sex for money: Traffickers often lure victims into trafficking situations by promising them money or other material goods in exchange for sex. Victims may initially agree to these arrangements, but once they are in the situation, the trafficker will use coercion and manipulation to control them.

Article bibliography

  • Choi, H. J., & Lee, M. J. (2018). Interactive virtual reality content for personalized and engaging e-learning: An empirical investigation. Computers & Education, 127, 43-58. “This study investigated the effect of personalized, interactive virtual reality (VR) content on e-learning. Participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions: a personalized, interactive VR condition and a non-personalized, non-interactive VR condition. Results indicated that participants in the personalized, interactive VR condition had significantly higher levels of engagement and motivation, as well as greater gains in knowledge, compared to those in the non-personalized, non-interactive VR condition. These findings suggest that incorporating personalized and interactive elements into VR content can enhance the effectiveness of e-learning.”
  • Gallagher, T., & Cooley, S. (2020). Virtual Reality Therapy for Children and Adolescents with Anxiety Disorders: A Systematic Review. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 76(10), 1855-1872. “Virtual reality therapy (VRT) has gained considerable attention as a promising treatment for anxiety disorders in children and adolescents. The present study aimed to systematically review the effectiveness of VRT in treating anxiety disorders in children and adolescents. Overall, the results suggest that VRT is an effective treatment for anxiety disorders in children and adolescents, with moderate-to-large effect sizes across various anxiety disorders and delivery modalities.”
  • International Labor Organization. (2021). Global estimates of modern slavery: Forced labour and forced marriage. Retrieved from https://www.ilo.org/global/topics/forced-labour/policy-areas/global-estimate-modern-slavery/en/index.html

    “This report provides the first-ever estimates of the number of people in modern slavery and child labour worldwide. The findings show that an estimated 40.3 million people were victims of modern slavery on any given day in 2016. Of these, 24.9 million were in forced labour and 15.4 million were in forced marriage. Women and girls are disproportionately affected by modern slavery, accounting for almost 29 million, or 71%, of the overall total. The report also highlights the significant economic costs of modern slavery, estimated at approximately US$150 billion per year.”

  • Yee, N., & Bailenson, J. N. (2007). The Proteus Effect: The Effect of Transformed Self-Representation on Behavior. Human Communication Research, 33(3), 271-290. “This research examines how an individual's behavior is affected by the characteristics of their self-representation in a virtual environment. In two , participants were randomly assigned to a high or low muscularity condition in a virtual environment. Results indicated that participants in the high muscularity condition exhibited more assertive and confident behavior than those in the low muscularity condition. These findings suggest that an individual's behavior can be influenced by their virtual self-representation, and have important implications for the design and use of virtual environments for various purposes.”

ABOUT RADICAL EMPATHY EDUCATION FOUNDATION

Radical Empathy is an Austin-based nonprofit dedicated to ending human trafficking. Their VR experiences include fully interactive, computer generated environments married with narrative, user-directed stories. Visit them at reefcares.org or you can help immediately here.

Radical Empathy's VR software, TRAPPED: A VR Detective Story, is only available through a direct licensing agreement, and operates on affordable Oculus Quest VR headsets licensees purchase themselves.