Sextortion is on the Rise
Within the past three weeks, I’ve had two different families reach out to me with dire sextortion situations. In both cases, these were older kids! Ages 17 and 18, respectively. In other words, sextortion isn’t just a young kid issue.
- A stranger approached him on Discord, videoed him in sex acts, then told him to pay or she’d post his video on Instagram and email all his friends.
- He paid a few hundred dollars, all he had, but they wanted more.
- He asked his mom for help and she paid a few hundred more. The bad guys still want more.
What would you do in this situation?
What is Sextortion?
Sextortion happens when a person uses coercion to obtain sexual photos, videos, money, or even sex from a victim. Many times, the targets are pre-teens and teens. And based on all of the most recent cases that have been reported to PYE, boys are the victims, because they are often very easily convinced by a cute girl to send a compromising photo. Imagine your teenage son or daughter receiving a text message like this:
What would your son or daughter do? Does he or she have the tools and the wisdom to handle a message like this?
Sextortion Happened to a Friend
Early one morning, I received a text from a friend who is very familiar with my Internet safety work at Protect Young Eyes. She said it was urgent that we spoke, and so I called her on my way to work.
She shared that the night before, her 13-year old son Bryce [name changed] had sent a nude photo of himself to a stranger on social media. This stranger had randomly reached out to her son via DM (direct message) and started a friendly conversation. The messages quickly turned mean, and the person threatened to hurt Bryce’s family if he didn’t send a nude photo. Bryce froze with fear and sent a photo that he knew was wrong, but he just reacted. Next, the stranger told Bryce that if he didn’t give his mom’s credit card number, he was going to post the photo on multiple social media platforms.
At this point, Bryce wised up and told mom what was happening.
Mom and I discussed next steps. We got law enforcement involved. It wasn’t fun. Even though all physical doors to the house were locked, it was a digital doorway that gave a bad player access to her son.
Thorn Surveyed 2097 Sextortion Survivors
Thorn reported a sextortion survey that closely examines the experiences of minors. Here are a few of their findings:
- Approximately 60% of participants were ages 13 and younger when threatened, and slightly more than 50% of participants aged 14, did not know their offender offline.
- Conversely, teenage participants ranging in age from 15-17 were the most likely (57%) participants to be threatened by an offender they knew offline.
- Across the sample, threats were made frequently, with nearly half (47%) of participants reporting being threatened daily, and repeatedly, with more than half (52%) of participants reporting receiving threats between 1 and 9 times per day.
- In nearly 1 in 3 cases, offenders actually carried out or attempted to carry out threats against the victim. Threats were more often carried out when the offender and victim knew each other in person (38% of the time) compared to those who knew the perpetrator online (20% of the time).
This screenshot from the Thorn study is a wake-up call to parents and caregivers to swing the doors of conversation wide open so that shame is crushed:
3 Things Parents Can do to Prevent Sextorton
The situation I dealt with in real life give parents three primary takeaways:
- Practice, practice, practice different sextortion scenarios.
- Control nighttime internet use.
- Control app downloads and be aware of the apps they ARE using.
#1 Practice, practice, practice different sextortion scenarios.
Studying the Thorn survey results above makes it clear that we need to make double and triple sure that kids know we’re safe. That NO MATTER WHAT is happening online, that they can land safely and softly with us.
Maybe show then the Thorn image with the stat that only 1 in 3 never say anything because of shame. Then say, “but there’s NO shame between me and you. There’s absolutely nothing you can tell me that would make me love you any less.”
Maybe watch the “cat” video on Thorn’s website:
And, give them an alternative. Did you know that Thorn has their own sextortion counseling line? It can help de-escalate a potential sextortion situation. Just have your child text the word Thorn to 741741 – maybe program this in their phone.
Another part of this “practice” is to just be brutally open and honest during conversations with your children, in particular, your sons. You might say, “Hey, you’re not going to ever take a picture of you penis are you? No dick pics, ok?” For some of you, you’re cringing and can’t believe I just typed that. But when you call it out, you activate the thinking part of their brain.
Here are two Instagram posts where we talk more about this direct, relational approach:
#2 Control nighttime internet use.
It’s a fact – kids (and adults) take more digital risks at night.
There’s something about being all alone at night that causes a decrease in the ability to discern right and wrong. I can’t explain it, other than knowing from personal experience with porn that Internet temptation lurks heavier at night. Questions to consider:
- What are the rules in your home for when the Internet is used?
- Are devices turned in at night?
- Are there rules about Internet usage in bedrooms? (Remember, where kids use technology often dictates how they use technology. And, we believe bedrooms are one of the places that kids really shouldn’t be online)
One of your best helps here is to get a GREAT router! One that can shut off your WiFi for devices without data plans. Then, turn in devices WITH data plans.
#3 Monitor the apps your kids use.
We spend a lot of time staying current on the latest apps, because we know that’s where kids spend most of their time. Parents really need to review their kid’s smart devices often to make sure they understand what apps are being used and also have measures in place to restrict app downloads. It’s much easier to do this on Apple’s devices than on Android, but it’s possible on both.
- Set up Family Sharing (steps 1-9 in the screenshots here), so that parents approve app downloads, and/or
- Turn off the ability to download apps (steps 25-26 in the screenshots) in the first place by removing the App Store.
- Bark parental controls can also help by showing you an inventory of apps on their phone.
- Use Family Link (flowchart here), so that parents approve app downloads, and/or
- Bark parental controls can also help by showing you an inventory of apps on their phone.
**WAIT, Chris, my kid has already been the victim of sextortion, how should we respond?
Here are the steps we share with families:
- The “bad guys” are often more talk than action. But when you’re stuck in the middle of it, that’s often very little consolation. Time is money, so if you ignore their pressures, they will often move on to the next person (although no one can guarantee this). As a result, I often advise families NOT to pay money. No matter how much they threaten.
- Report the user on whatever social media platform it happened on. This step is not applicable if it occurred via texting. Here is an amazing list of “how to” for the major platforms from Darren Laur.
- Take screenshots of chats, profiles, and anything else that might be useful if law enforcement gets involved.
- Remove the person from your followers (Instagram) or friends (Snapchat) quickly. Ignore all friend and follower requests for at least 2-3 days.
- You might choose to report the incident to local law enforcement. But sadly, except for the worst situations, they don’t have many tools at their disposal to do much.
- The person might follow through with the threat and create a group DM on Instagram. This would likely be a DM group with whoever is toward the TOP of your followers list, because the person threatening you often takes screenshots of a few screens of your followers. Fortunately, Instagram hides attached photos from individuals who the recipient doesn’t know until the recipient taps on them. Since these spam-like messages happen to all of us, fortunately, many people delete them first, which is of course is what all parents and teens hope happens in these situations.
- (Thank you, White Hatter Team for this suggestion) Set up Google Alerts https://www.google.com/alerts – you will need a Gmail account to use this tool. In the Google Alerts search bar, type your name in quotation marks “John Smith”. By doing this, Google will search your full name every day and if the nude gets posted/reposted and tagged with your name in the visible web (the web we all use daily), Google will likely pick up on it and send you an alert to your Gmail account. If you get an alert, click on it and make sure it is you. If it is your nude, you will now know where it is being hosted online, and can then make application to have it taken down as child sexual abuse material if you are under age 18.
- Finally, there’s a new tool from The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children called Take it Down. This might sound scary, but it’s where a family or a teen (or even a young adult) can upload the photo that was shared and NCMEC creates an anonymous “hash” identifier for the photo. This hash is like a fingerprint and if that fingerprint shows up in any other platform that uses hashing (Meta is one – Facebook, Instagram), then the NCMEC tool automatically reports it and “takes it down.”
*Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, we will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. We constantly test products to make sure we only recommend solutions that we trust with our own families.
Chris McKenna, Founder: A man with never ending energy when it comes to fighting for the safety and protection of children. Chris practices his internet safety tips on his four amazing children and is regularly featured on news, radio, and podcasts for his research. His 2019 US Senate Judiciary Committee testimony was the catalyst for draft legislation and on-going discussion that could radically change online child protection laws and earned PYE the NCOSE Dignity Defense Alert Award in 2020. The PYE team has performed over 1,300 presentations at schools, churches, and nonprofits and was featured in the Childhood 2.0 movie. When not leading PYE, Chris is the Digital Marketing Manager for Covenant Eyes. Other loves include running, spreadsheets, nature, and candy.