Roo Powell is going all-in undercover to protect children from online predators in Undercover Underage, a new series premiering Tuesday, Nov. 2 on discovery+. Powell, a 38-year-old child advocate who founded SOSA (Safe from Online Sex Abuse), opened up to PopCulture.com about the work her nonprofit does in partnership with law enforcement, transforming this mother of three into a teen persona to help uncover the identities of the men who reach out to her.
Working in the tech and child safety space since 2017, Powell and SOSA also work advocating for better internet safety laws, fighting for grooming statutes to be instituted in all 50 states and educating everyone from teens and parents to tech companies about how online predation works. Powell told PopCulture that "people are underestimating for sure" the amount of child abuse and predation that takes place on the internet and social media.
While Powell thinks the internet provides "many wonderful things" for kids, it also allows people looking to abuse children and collect child sex abuse material to do so far more easily than in the past. This is where SOSA and Powell's many teen personas come in. Using everything from photo editing to fake teenage bedrooms set up in their base of operations, Powell and her team are looking to undercover details about the men who reach out to her thinking she's a young teen girl so they can pass them on to police.
"These perpetrators, especially the more sophisticated ones, are more cautious ... and they test you," Powell said of the level of preparation that goes into her personas — from developing fake hobbies and a schedule to memorizing local school let-out times. "The more sophisticated perp is looking for those kinds of holes."
Having conversations with these men is "tough," Powell admitted, and it wears on her emotionally. But when these predators want to FaceTime to verify her identity, she has "no choice but to sink into the persona" she's created. "I have to be a teenage girl and I have to sell it. And I have to sell it or maybe we lose this guy. ... There's no room for error."
Successfully aiding in the arrest of one of the men she talks to online is "always sobering" and "never celebratory," despite all the work Powell and her team put in. "If only they had chosen a different path," she reflected. "Of course there's a sense of relief that they aren't able to hurt a child. ...I'm glad that it ends there, but I generally feel stoic."
Powell hopes Undercover Underage will not only educate people about the dangers of communicating with strangers online but also aid in "empowering a society to tackle this together" with empathy-framed education. "I hope that this is a catalyst for a lot of change," she said. The first two episodes of Undercover Underage will begin streaming on discovery+ Tuesday, Nov. 2, with new episodes premiering every Tuesday.