This week, the FBI issued a rare public safety alert warning of an alarming increase in “sextortion” cases targeting children and teens. That’s on the heels of field offices across the country issuing warnings earlier this year. State law enforcement agencies are equally concerned. One former investigator with the New Jersey State Police reported that sextortion cases have increased 400% in the last four years.
This crime begins when an adult masquerading as a teen befriends a minor online, usually via social media or a gaming platform. The adult engages the young person with curiosity and flattery, earning their trust. But the adult soon escalates communications to a sexual level, often by sending explicit images and asking for the same in return. Once the victim reciprocates, the threats and blackmail begin.
Sextortion isn’t a crime that’s exclusively perpetrated by strangers. Many cases originate with partners or ex-partners.
Perpetrators are manipulative and relentless. One told a 13-year-old he would rape her and kill her parents if she didn’t perform certain sexual acts on camera. In California, a man coerced at least 30 teenage boys into sending him thousands of dollars by threatening to distribute their explicit photos to family and friends.
While some offenders will stop if paid (not that they ever should be), others will keep on blackmailing their targets with ever-increasing demands: more photos, more money. And the damage goes well beyond monetary losses. In the past year, teen boys in the United States, Canada and Britain have died by suicide rather than face exposure of the sexually explicit images they were tricked into sharing. In one case that became public in May, a teenager in California killed himself within hours of his being exploited by an abuser.
Others endure in silence while they try to meet perpetrators’ demands. They experience trauma, fear and shame. Experts contend that the number of reported cases — the FBI said it received more than 18,000 reports of sextortion-related crime in 2021 — is far lower than the actual number, with victims holding back because they fear stigma or humiliation.
These stories aren’t easy to hear. But sharing them helps. Research suggests that when kids know “how to deflect and dissuade requests and pleas for sexual activities and images that are unwanted” and “become proficient in setting boundaries,” they become less vulnerable to sextortion and other online exploitation. Parents, teachers and other authority figures have a role in educating them in these situations.
Though sextortion is a serious crime — coercing a child to produce sexual material carries up to a life sentence — abusers can be hard to identify. Those targeting American kids often operate from outside the country, making prosecution nearly impossible. And they use sophisticated malware and hacking skills to hide their identities, gain access to a target’s social media contacts, steal personal information and even control cameras on victims’ devices.
But we can fight back.
The first step is to communicate with kids about potential dangers — which requires an understanding of the role that online relationships may play in their lives. According to a study in JAMA Pediatrics, nonschool screen time more than doubled for adolescents during the pandemic and shows no sign of shrinking. Today, social media, gaming and chatrooms provide a sense of community for young people. The connections formed in these spaces become emotional and personal. They naturally want to let their guards down.
That’s why advice that may seem obvious to some adults can feel like a tall ask for teens. So remind your children that people online can pretend to be whoever they want. That photos and videos are never proof of identity. Tell kids to be highly selective about sharing any personal information and to never, ever share intimate images online. Parents who make it clear that they are open to discussing — without shame or punishment — any question or concern about sexuality create an environment in which kids may more readily disclose any unwanted requests or concerning contact.
Youth can be drawn into providing these images for a variety of reasons. Since adolescents are just starting to explore their sexuality, it can be exciting for them to receive a nude photo and exchange one, particularly with a real or perceived romantic partner. Their online abusers also groom them to do so: They often tell them how beautiful or handsome they are, and that the relationship between them is special. Of course, once that first photo is shared, the person exploiting them has all the leverage they need to obtain additional ones.
Sextortion isn’t a crime that’s exclusively perpetrated by strangers. Many cases originate with partners or ex-partners. Remind your kids that once an image is sent, even to someone they know and trust, what happens to that image is out of their control and essentially lives on the internet forever.
Most importantly, encourage your kids to talk openly about any suspicious behavior or threats or any interaction that gives them a bad feeling. Too often, embarrassment prevents teens from coming forward. Children should know they can confide in a parent without fear of blame or reprisal.
How an adult responds to a child’s disclosure of abuse can significantly affect that child’s mental health. If parents rally around their kids with love and concern, the children can come to see that they are victims of a crime and that whatever mistakes they made in sending a photo, they are not responsible for the exploitation that followed. This also buffers against any bullying at school or in the community as a result of the photos being shared. If parents communicate shame, these kids can become isolated and feel hopeless.
In addition to providing support and acceptance, parents may need to seek counseling for their child. If a kid is struggling at school or at home, losing sleep, appearing withdrawn or exhibiting any other significant change in behavior, parents should seek professional help for them. And anytime a child is blackmailed or extorted for sexual images, that should be reported to law enforcement. The Children’s Advocacy Centers supported by my organization, National Children’s Alliance, are potential addresses for this help. This problem is bigger than any one of us, and no one should have to go through it alone.