Sextortion is something no parent wants to think could happen to their child, nor a topic most of us would ever imagine we’d need to discuss in our homes. However, according to the latest FBI reports, sextortion is a digital threat to children that, woefully, is on the rise.
According to the FBI, there has been a considerable increase lately in sextortion cases involving children and teens being coerced by adults online.
What is sextortion?
A sextortion scenario can emerge in several ways. Most often, it occurs when an adult (posing as a peer) engages in casual conversation with an underage child, gains their trust through online conversation, then pressures or threatens the child into sharing sexual photos or videos of themselves.
In some cases, the initial contact with the criminal will be a threat. The person may claim to already have a revealing picture or video of a child that they threaten to share if the victim does not send more pictures.
According to the FBI, this crime more often starts when young people believe they are communicating with someone their age who is interested in a relationship or with someone who is offering something of value. This catfish (false profile) relationship usually involves the predator using gifts, money, flattery, lies, or other methods to get a young person to produce an image.
How does sextortion begin?
These dangerous conversations can be initiated through text, a social or chat app, a gaming site, or any number of digital connection points.
After a criminal successfully obtains a photo or video from their victim, the threats can escalate to promises to publish the content or even hurt the child if they don’t send more. This emotionally harrowing situation can ignite shame, fear, and confusion in children who may be too embarrassed to ask for help or report the abuse.
While these criminals rarely request to meet their victims face-to-face, the emotional and physical impact of sextortion can be devastating to a child. According to the FBI, some victims report abusers who become vicious with non-stop harassment and threats. Victims can feel scared, alone, embarrassed, and increasingly desperate. Sadly, as reported in the news, this type of crime can leave some children feeling like they have no way out of the situation.
What can families do?
Talk about the reality of sextortion.
If you are a parent or caregiver, explain to your child how sextortion can happen to anyone online and why it’s important to only connect with known friends and family. Parents: Consider boosting your device security with parental controls that filter content, report your child’s online activity, and reveal potential problems.
Master and repeat the basics.
Some essential safety protocols kids should follow online are worthy of repeating. They are:
1) Make social accounts private, don’t share personal information, and only connect with known friends
2) Ignore and block messages from strangers
3) Keep your guard up. People can pretend to be anyone online, and photos can be altered
4) Be suspect if anyone asks you to message or text with them privately
5) Never share risky photos with anyone online—even a trusted friend
6) Tell someone immediately if someone is threatening you online.
Audit all digital connections.
With your child, go through their apps, social networks, chats, gaming communities, and friend groups and do some editing, defriending, and blocking. Make sure both you and your child know and trust all their online connections. Remember: Open communication and an honest relationship with your child are the most powerful tools you have to keep your child safe online.
Be clear to remove any fault.
A sextortion situation for a child can be incredibly confusing and cause them to isolate and avoid telling anyone about it. Remind and be clear with your child that they would never be in trouble for coming to you with any problem. Let them know that sextortion is a crime for the perpetrator and that they have not broken any laws by sending photos (despite what an abuser might have told them).
Report the crime.
Victims of sextortion should go to a parent or trusted adult and tell them they need help. While doing this can feel terrifying, it’s crucial for victims to know people understand and want to help. For parents and caregivers, contact the FBI at 1-800-CALL-FBI or report the crime online at tips.fbi.gov.
While the bad actors online are out to exploit and ruin our digital spaces, it’s important to maintain a healthy perspective rather than responding with fear. Remind your kids that there’s an army of people even more dedicated than the criminals; people like the FBI who are out to stop online crime and keep the internet safe for families. Additionally, as a parent or caregiver, your commitment to helping your family stay informed, equipped, and empowered online is how we all win.