The rise of ‘sextortion’ on social media and how to protect youth

February 3, 2023

 

One of the most significant online safety risks for children and teenagers today is sextortion. "Sextortion" is an online crime where youth are exploited through blackmail or coercion in an attempt to send explicit images and videos, manipulate, extort money, or engage in sexual activity. 

In 2020, the Federal Bureau of Investigation issued a PSA to alert the public to a noticeable increase in sextortion crimes amidst quarantine mandates during COVID-19. 

Furthermore, the Internet Crime Complaint Center — a division of the FBI — estimates that they received over 18,000 sextortion-related complaints nationally, resulting in losses of more than $13 million in 2021. 

Numerous other statistics illustrate the disturbing trend of sextortion and its impact on youth: 

  • Approximately 5% of students reported that they had been the victim of sextortion; 3% of students admitted to threatening others who shared sensitive images with them in confidence 

  • On average, 1 out of 4 victims were 13 or younger when threatened

  • Almost half of extorters follow through on their threats if the victim does not comply

  • Roughly 1 out of 3 victims reported that threats lasted three months or longer

  • Half of sextortion victims are threatened several times per day, with 1 in 4 receiving between 10 and 19 threats per day 

Source: Thorn

How does sextortion work?

Sextortion schemes are executed in a myriad of ways. In some instances, an adult will masquerade as a young man or woman to deceive and lure youth into sending inappropriate images and videos. Once the perpetrator receives incriminating images, they follow-up with additional demands and threaten to disseminate content to friends and family if the victim doesn’t comply.  

Predators find their victims throughout a variety of platforms where young teens frequent, including: 

  • Gaming platforms

  • Social media platforms

  • Instant messaging platforms and apps (WhatApp, Kik, Telegram, etc)

Sextortion can occur offline, too. In fact, according to research from the Crimes Against Children Research Center at University of New Hampshire, approximately 60% of victims surveyed stated that offline blackmail was the origin of their sextortion. In these cases, the victim may have known the individual who sexually exploited them. For example, a former partner may have threatened to share explicit content in an effort to manipulate and control their victim. 

Offline extortionists may also be anonymous. They can extort their victims with false claims about images or information they have. For instance, someone with information about where a student lives can convince their victim that they have more power to expose them than they actually do. This creates a ripple effect of control and demand. 

The role of technology in sextortion 

Technology is at the crux of all sextortion efforts, whether they begin online or offline. Morally corrupt individuals use modern tech tools, apps, and platforms to find, stalk, communicate with, groom, and threaten victims. 

Online sextortion often begins with the offender developing a friendship with the victim on social media via a fake profile. 

Sextortion can also be initiated on gaming sites. Last year, the FBI launched its "It's Not a Game Campaign" to spread awareness about the uptick in sextortion cases originating from gaming sites. 

Once camaraderie is established through various grooming tactics, the perpetrator requests alternative online communication methods from their victims, such as cell phone numbers and usernames of other messaging platforms. 

Recognizing signs of sextortion

School staff and parents must be able to recognize signs of sextortion among students. When schools and parents work together, they cast a much wider student safety net both offline and online, both in and outside of school. 

Victims of sextortion will likely exhibit clear signs of decline in mental health and wellbeing, such as: 

  • Becoming increasingly secretive with digital devices

  • Exhibiting possessive behavior over digital devices

  • Leaving the room to take calls or read messages and covering screens when someone walks in

  • Sudden and unexplained personality changes or mood swings 

  • Vaguely discussing new friendships and spending more time speaking to new friends

  • Decrease in grades and time spent on school activities 

Online signs of a potential sextortion case include: 

  • Spending more time on digital devices

  • Using encrypted messaging apps with greater frequency  

  • Suspicious search queries (i.e., "what to do when someone blackmails you")


Using technology to identify at-risk students

Technology plays a central role in sextortion but can also be used to identify, combat, and prevent it. 

Online student monitoring software and parental apps are instrumental in identifying online signs of sextortion. Student safety has also become increasingly important in a tech-centric learning environment. Many schools now leverage digital monitoring and student threat detection solutions to ensure kids and teens are safe while they're online. 

Student safety monitoring uses artificial intelligence and human moderators to identify suspicious online behavior. For example, online student threat detection software for schools will flag a student who uses a search engine to find information about how to meet someone they met online. It achieves this by identifying suspicious online behavior that may offer insight into potentially harmful activity.

student safety audit

 

Outside of school, parental control apps allow guardians to recognize signs of trouble before they become serious. While features vary between platforms, parental apps like Qustodio (free for School Manager and Classwize customers) typically allow parents to block specific sites, monitor browsing history and screen time on school-issued and personal devices, set time limits, and track calls and messages. 

These features offer valuable data about how mobile devices are used. Parents can use this to glean insights into patterns of behavior. Furthermore, in the unfortunate circumstance where sextortion is identified, the parental app may offer crucial evidence that aids reports to authorities. 

The impact of sextortion among youth

Nearly half of all perpetrators carry out their threats when their demands are not met, representing actual harm to targeted victims. 

According to a report published by the National Children's Alliance, 1 out of 4 victims sought mental health or medical care after being extorted. Underage individuals may feel a loss of control over their lives, deep-rooted shame, anxiety, and depression, and eventually suffer from PTSD. The psychological impact is far-reaching; 1 in 8 victims reported having to relocate to begin living an everyday life again. 

In extreme cases, sextortion can result in suicide. In 2022, 17-year-old Ryan Last, a senior at Sobrato High School in California, took his own life after he could not continue paying money to an extortionist who pretended to be a young woman with a romantic interest. 

Lasts' mother, Pauline Stuart, opened up about her experience to warn other parents about the dangers of sexploitation. "To him, he wasn't smart because he fell for this scam," Stuart confided. "He believed in somebody, and that devastates me that he felt that he wasn't smart because somebody took advantage of him." 

Reducing risk of becoming sextortion victims

Identifying extortionists is complicated for many reasons. However, one of the most significant barriers to finding and prosecuting these criminals is that victims often feel ashamed of their actions. This could prevent them from confiding in someone and aiding law enforcement efforts to identify perpetrators.

Schools and parents should take preventative measures to ensure this doesn't happen to children and teens. Here are a few ways to reduce the risk of sextortion: 


  1. Apply proper parental control settings to games, apps, and social media platforms. This includes blocking the ability to contact or be contacted by unknown individuals. 

  2. Monitor personal device usage and pay attention to potential red flags. Pay particular attention to shifts in online behavior.

  3. Have transparent and open conversations. Discuss the dangers of talking to strangers online, sharing personal information, and sending explicit imagery.

  4. Teach children proper digital citizenship. Online programs like Community — Linewize’s online safety education program — leverage the expertise of psychologists and other professionals to educate parents on digital wellbeing and safety. 

  5. Ensure schools have efficient student safety monitoring systems. Parents still determining what student safety monitoring software schools use can reach out to their administration to find more information. 

  6. Create a safe haven for underage individuals. Youth should feel comfortable confiding in school counselors or parents. Children who are confident in available resources are more likely to open up about troublesome situations. 

What to do when child is a victim of sextortion

Two out of three sextortion victims speak out about their experience. Slightly more than half of people who open up about their experience speak to a friend or family member. One-fourth of victims report sextortion on the platform(s) where the threats are made, while only one-fifth report their encounters to law enforcement. 



If parents or school staff discover a child it’s a victim of sextortion, it's essential to let them know that it's not their fault. Remind them that they did the right thing by telling the truth and won't be penalized for their actions. 

Once this has been established, here are a few next steps you should take: 

  • Get a first-hand account of the entire situation from the child

  • Take screenshots of interaction between the child and the offender (inappropriate photos of underage children shouldn't be saved; be sure to report images to authorities)

  • Block all contact with the offender

  • Report the abuse to authorities, including local authorities, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force

  • Report the incident to the platform or app where the sextortion took place, as soon as possible

  • Provide the child with mental health counseling

  • Consider consulting with a lawyer 

Sextortion is an incredibly difficult and sensitive issue to deal with, especially when children and teens are involved. Educating yourself of how to recognize and react to sextortion will put you in a favorable position to prevent and respond to it most effectively. Know that resources are always available to you, your children, and your students. Child exploitation is a serious issue; help spread awareness to combat these harrowing sextortion statistics. 


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