Here’s a math problem for you to ponder. What do get when you combine TEENS, their natural CURIOSITY ABOUT SEX and their generational comfort with COMMUNICATING ONLINE alongside their biological limitations in making SAFE AND APPROPRIATE decisions with access to internet-enabled SCREENS that connect them to their FRIENDS without parental supervision?
But here’s the kicker. Let ‘FRIENDS’ represent someone your teen may NOT know IN REAL LIFE, someone who may be MISREPRESENTING who they are, someone who is GROOMING your teen to trust them, someone who, simply put, is A BAD GUY.
And this bad guy is patiently trolling on social media sites, live stream sites and video games for the right moment to get your teen to send a sexually-charged image or video through applications your teen likely thinks are private, like “anonymous” messaging apps or live streaming services. These bad guys can also steal sexual images by hacking into your teen’s electronic devices using malware and gaining access to your teen’s files and controlling your teen’s web camera and microphone without your teen knowing it. Seriously.
And once that nude image is out there, this bad guy intends to pressure your teen for more and more sexual images, if not worse.
It’s the new math of the digital age and it spells TROUBLE. Another word for this type of blackmail is SEXTORTION.
Sextortion is a form of sexual exploitation that primarily occurs online and employs non-physical forms of coercion using sexually explicit images as blackmail to acquire sexual content (photos/videos) or to demand sex. And guess what, the FBI considers it the single-largest growing threat to children on the internet!
According to The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which began tracking sextortion in October 2013, sextortion is on the rise. Between 2014 and 2015, there was a 90% increase in the total number of reports; a pattern that has continued, with sextortion reports up 150% within the first several months of 2016 compared to the number of reports in that same time-frame in 2014. Based on their data, 78% of the incidents involved female children and 12% involved male children; and the average age at the time of incident was 15-years-old. In 22% of the reports, the reporter was suspicious of or knew that multiple children were being targeted by the same offender. The reality is that the scope of this problem is likely far greater, as many victims won’t report it out of fear or shame.
A joint investigation by journalists and police in Utah into the growing trend of teens sending nude photos to each other revealed how a teen’s online missteps can be the breeding ground for being a victim of sextortion.
- A 17-year-old boy accepted a friend request from a woman he did not know and communicated with her via Facebook video. At one point, he appeared naked in the video. She then blackmailed him, threatening to post the video online.
- A 17-year-old girl reported that someone shared nude photographs and videos of her on Facebook and Snapchat. She had recorded the images in 2014 when she was intoxicated and later shared the images with two people.
- A teenage girl was receiving messages on Facebook and Instagram from an unknown person demanding nude photos or he would post a nude photo of her he said already had. The girl had given a nude photo to an ex-boyfriend a few years earlier.
- A teenage boy accepted a friend request on Facebook from an unknown woman. When he opened a video chat with her, she was naked and convinced him to take his clothes off. The woman recorded the video and blackmailed him.
Sometimes the perpetrator of sextortion is not a stranger but a peer of a child victim.
- In Washington state a 16-year-old teenager was the center of an eight-month FBI investigation where the suspect posed as someone else to get hundreds of nude photos from dozens of victims at W.F West High School in Chehalis, Washington.
- In Duxbury, Massachusetts a circulating Dropbox account had folders named after 50 Duxbury High School girls, each containing revealing or nude photos. In some cases, the girls had sent their photos to boyfriends, trusting that they would keep them private. Others girls had sent the images to boys they liked and hoped to impress.
Sexual exploitation of any kind has long-lasting negative effects. According to a U.S. Department of Justice 2015 study of 43 sextortion cases involving children, two victims had committed suicide, another 10 had made suicide attempts and others engaged in cutting, experienced depression and suffered significant academic downfalls.
In the Brookings Institute Report on Sextortion, victims of sextortion by hacking reported feeling a sense of powerlessness and vulnerability. They described living in fear of the next message demanding more compromising pictures or videos with perpetual anxiety of the risk of public exposure. The report found that younger victims are sometimes paralyzed by the potential social repercussions of sextortion and that the nature of sextortion also makes for easy victim-blaming. In the report, Martha Finnegan, an FBI expert in child forensics explained that this kind of psychological cruelty—forcing the victim to participate in the production of sexual images—can have “a devastating emotional effect” on the victims; “Even though they haven’t been touched, the trauma level we see is as severe as hands-on offenses, because a lot of these kids don’t know how to end what can go on, sometimes, for years. … And they think it’s not happening to anyone else.”
Steve Cagen, a leading investigator of child sextortion cases for the U.S. Homeland Security, says the effects of sextortion on child victims are real. “It is difficult when we have to look in the faces of children who have been exploited, who will never be the same again. I’m asking parents to have the difficult conversations with their children, beginning the conversation with the dangers of sending nude photos to anyone.”
It’s worth emphasizing that sextortion reaches children from all walks of life and it’s extremely easy to become a victim of sextortion. Brock Nicholson, head of Homeland Security Investigations in Atlanta, Georgia, said of online sextortion, “Predators used to stalk playgrounds. This is the new playground.” These are the facts of the digital age. So, what can you do to make sure this problem does not affect your teen?
MAKE SURE YOUR TEENS UNDERSTAND:
- Never send a nude photo or video of yourself to anyone, no matter who they are—or who they say they are.
- Don’t accept friend requests on social media from someone you have never met in person.
- Don’t engage in online conversations with people you don’t know from school, extra-curricular activities, the neighborhood, or other venues where your child socializes in person with their friends.
- Beware of malware that can take control of your devices and record you without you knowing it. Do not open attachments from people you do not know. And don’t click on every link just because you can!
- Turn off your electronic devices and cover your web cameras when you are not using them.
- If you are receiving sextortion threats, never give the perpetrator what they want. Remember this is a crime. Do not be afraid to talk to an adult and to call the FBI. If you believe you’re a victim of sextortion, or know someone else who is, call your local FBI office or toll-free at 1-800-CALL-FBI.
Parents, your pre-teens and teens need you now more than ever. They are easy targets for bad guys looking to exploit their naivety and vulnerability. And once they get targeted for sextortion, they may not even understand it as criminal behavior and may be too scared to reach out for help. Yes, it’s critical that you know what your children are doing online and that your kids know the consequences of their actions, especially when it comes to sharing personal information and photos. But most important of all is that your kids see you as a resource they can turn to for help. Get involved in your teen’s digital life and have the Tech Talk early and often.