By Ellie Halpert

The fourth episode of Netflix’s Docuseries, “Web of Make Believe: Death, Lies, and the Internet,” features one major warning: What you put on the internet stays on the internet. This case takes place in the small town of Belmont, where high schoolers are highly involved in the digital world, primarily Facebook. Several girls in the town begin receiving messages from a cute boy named Seth. The interactions begin as innocent chatting, and eventually move into flirting, compliments and selfies. As the grooming process continues, “Seth” starts to ask the girls for naked photos. When they refuse, he becomes aggressive and starts to “sextort” the girls. He hacks into their Facebooks and email accounts, threatening to share their old naked photos with everyone they know if they do not send more. This process is unfortunately effective; the girls feel too ashamed by their sharing of nude photos to explain the situation to an adult. Several of the girls Seth harassed shared that they began to self harm and even contemplate suicide. Eventually, one of the girls goes to the police and an investigation begins into his actions.

Unfortunately, the case in Belmont is just one of many. Every day, predators are reaching out to internet users (even young children!) and engaging in the grooming process. This process involves 6 stages: targeting the victim, forming a bond, filling a need, isolating the child, beginning the abuse, and maintaining control. Pre-teens and teenagers are targeted most often in these sextortion cases, with 71% of all cases involving children under the age of 18. Sextortion is so difficult to stop because internet related cases are notoriously resource intensive to solve, due to all the actions people can take to “hide” their actions online and the “anonymity” the internet provides. It is imperative that everyone, children, teenagers, and caregivers alike, recognize the signs of grooming and are able to put a stop to it. It is also important to remember the internet is not as anonymous as it seems, and once something is online, it’s there forever.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Has anyone you don’t know in real life ever reached out to you online? What platform(s) and how did you respond?
  2. Have you ever formed a relationship online with someone you didn’t know in real life (aka the physical world vs online world)? Would you consider this person a friend?
  3. Make a list of at least 5 rules for communicating with strangers online.
  4. Have you ever done anything on the internet you would not want to resurface? How does this episode make you feel about the permanence of things on the internet?
  5. Have you ever been asked to share naked pictures of yourself? If so, was it by someone you knew? How did you respond?
  6. How can you and your peers recognize the signs of grooming?
  7. Do you feel like you act differently online? How does the “anonymity” of the internet affect people’s interactions?

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