Sextortion is a difficult and sensitive subject, but we need to talk about it.
Every adult needs to know about this new form of child sexual exploitation that has dramatically increased over recent years. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, sextortion is the fastest-growing online threat to children. In December 2022, a national public safety alert was made to raise awareness about an explosion of cases. Although we want to believe this won’t happen to a child in our lives, anyone can be manipulated and exploited by someone they talk to online.
We can be doing a great job monitoring online safety, but our children can still be vulnerable to this threat if we don’t talk about it.
In today’s blog, we are going to define sextortion, explain how and why youth are targeted, provide tips to help prevent this child sexual exploitation, and offer ways to support youth.
What is Sextortion?
Sextortion is a crime where someone is threatened—most often with the possibility of sharing their nude or sexual images/videos with close friends, family, or the public—by a person who is blackmailing them in exchange for sexual images/videos, meeting in person, money, or sexual favors.
Many cases are a result of communicating with a stranger online. Typically, someone starts up a conversation and develops an emotional connection to gain their trust. This person can obtain a sexual image/video through coercion, deceit, or other manipulative tactics. Perpetrators can be adults or even other youth.
It is important to talk about online safety and educate youth about the dangers of communicating online as well as the risks of sending and sharing nudes. There is no such thing as “for your eyes only.” A photo or message can be one click away from being public and permanent.
How Sextortion Happens
The FBI estimates that 500,000 online predators are active every day. Many create multiple profiles on different platforms in order to communicate with children. Predators don’t have to be master criminals that are expert hackers or scammers. A lot of predators will use information found easily online—such as on public social media accounts. They can often view the child’s family members, friends, school, or other identifying information used to threaten the child.
The CyberTipline has received more than 260,000 reports of online enticement (which includes sextortion) since 2016. Over recent years, the number of sextortion reports have more than doubled. In 2022, law enforcement received more than 7,000 reports regarding online financial sextortion of minors, which resulted in at least 3,000 victims and more than a dozen suicides. The FBI states there has been a 322% increase in nationally reported sextortion cases from February 2022 to February 2023.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), more than 100 reports of children being sextorted on the app Wizz have been submitted in the first half of 2023. Wizz is only behind Snapchat and Instagram in terms of sextortion reports occurring on specific apps.
Many cases remain unreported so there are likely thousands of more victims.
The FBI also warns that predators are creating fake nude images (using open-source A.I. tools) to sextort children. An increasing number of reported sextortion rings are originating outside of the country. According to the FBI, these sextortion rings primarily come from West African countries such as Nigeria.
Thorn, an international anti-human trafficking organization, released a 2021 study in which 2 in 5 minors reported they have been approached by someone online they believe was attempting “to befriend and manipulate” them. Children are at great risk as dangerous behaviors become more normalized. According to Thorn, 1 in 6 minors revealed they shared their own nude images/videos in a 2021 report on youth attitudes and experiences with self-generated child sexual abuse material (SG-CSAM). This was a 60% increase from 1 in 10 minors in Thorn’s 2019 study.
One way predators can deceive and exploit children is through a process called “catfishing” where they create a fictional persona or fake profile of a real person. While some predators may not hide their identity, youth are often led to believe they are talking to someone their own age. Typically, someone will initiate contact on one platform and then ask the child to move to a different platform. They may want to move to a lesser-known platform that offers disappearing messages and fewer privacy controls. The person the child is talking to can also change to someone more skilled in sextortion.
Sextortion affects all children—crossing all demographics.
Teenage boys have recently become an increased target of financial sextortion, but children of all ages are targets of sextortion. The FBI has interviewed victims as young as 8 years old. This crime does not necessarily take a long time to happen. It can occur quickly over just a few hours or even a few minutes.
Children can experience incredible confusion, fear, guilt, and shame when this crime happens.
If youth don’t feel like they can talk to someone about it, outcomes can even be fatal because they feel like their life is over. It is crucial to let youth know it is not their fault and there is support available. Adults can provide vital support by talking openly with children without judgment and shame.
We always want to encourage youth to avoid taking any sexual images/videos under any circumstances. Youth may not fully consider the potential negative outcomes that can happen by sending a sexual image/video. When you press send, you lose control of where it goes next. Engaging in a risky behavior like sexting can also make youth more vulnerable to sextortion.
If youth are being pressured or threatened to send sexual images/videos, we want them to realize they have choices. Love isn’t a transaction, and youth shouldn’t feel like they have to do anything to be liked or loved. The right people will like and love you just for who you are.
Talk with your child about what to do if they are sent a nude. If a child has received sexual images/videos, they should inform a safe adult immediately. They should never forward that inappropriate content to someone else.
Teach your child how to respond if someone makes an inappropriate request. You can use our Exploring Your Decisions worksheet to go through different scenarios to consider the potential consequences and encourage critical thinking. It’s also helpful to talk about the pressures children may be facing while also avoiding blaming or shaming language.
Another helpful safety tip is to avoid revealing personal identifying information online. Don’t share your full name, date of birth, home address, job location, school name, or telephone number. In addition to viewing your contacts or online friends, predators can exploit this information in sextortion schemes.
Adults can also learn more about the ever-evolving digital landscape and how to help children navigate the latest digital threats through iRespect&Protect’s tools and resources for parents/caregivers. Check out our Apps To Be Aware Of resource to discover different apps and platforms that may make children more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation!
What If You Or Your Child Is A Victim?
The conversation between parents and children has typically revolved around, “Don’t do it, don’t do it.” However, we also need to add, “But if you do, I will be there for you.” Let children know they can always talk to you about anything without judgment or shame.
Since children often blame themselves and our society has a culture of victim-blaming, these difficult situations can become easier to navigate when youth feel supported.
If a child discloses they are a victim of sextortion, thank them for telling you. Remember, the blackmailer is to blame. This doesn’t mean you are a bad parent. This is not your child’s fault.
The child is a victim of a crime, and you should contact local law enforcement immediately. Cooperating or paying the predator rarely stops the blackmail attempts. If sextortion occurs through a specific app or platform, it’s important to help the child report the account. While you should block the perpetrator, it’s advised to not delete your profile or the messages because that evidence may help law enforcement stop the predator. In addition to contacting law enforcement, you can make a report to the CyberTipline or reach out to NCMEC for support by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 1-800-THE-LOST.
If a child has trusted someone and already sent a picture, safe adults can also help minimize the spread of that image. NCMEC provides instructions on how to report/remove an inappropriate photo on the internet or social media. NCMEC also launched Take It Down—a free service to help remove or stop the online sharing of nude, partially nude, or sexually explicit images/ videos taken of youth when they were under 18 years old. Youth also remain anonymous using the service.
Although it can feel awkward or uncomfortable to think about initiating these conversations with your children, it helps to start early with talking about body safety, boundaries, and how to identify the safe adults in their lives. We can build on these conversations as children grow older. According to Thorn’s 2019 study, 62% of caregivers reported they have had a conversation with their child about sending nudes. However, 58% of caregivers also felt unprepared if their child’s nudes were leaked.
If you don’t know where to start: don’t worry, you’re not alone and there is support available.
This is one of the reasons that iRespect&Protect was created! We’re a community campaign dedicated to supporting the lives of youth and families by fostering positive self-worth, encouraging safe relationships, and promoting healthy online choices. Explore our tools and resources for kids, teens, parents/caregivers, and organizations. You can also register for free to attend an upcoming training.
It’s never too early or too late to start having these protective conversations. Thorn offers conversation starters and guides to support parents in talking about digital life, sending nudes, and sexting. For younger children, Thorn also has an age-appropriate animated PSA to increase awareness about sextortion, destigmatize this issue, and encourage youth to reach out for help. You can even use Thorn’s video as a way to initiate this conversation with your children. Thank you for being proactive about online safety and being open to these discussions to support the children in our lives!
In 2019, the FBI launched the Stop Sextortion campaign with resources for concerned adults including parents, educators, and youth. Another helpful resource for kids is NCMEC’s NetSmartz program, which has videos, shows, and activities while promoting internet safety and making healthy choices online.
Oregon Child Abuse Hotline: 1-855-503-SAFE (1-855-503-7233)
If you have reasonable suspicion that a child is being abused, call the Oregon Child Abuse Hotline at 1-855-503-SAFE (1-855-503-7233) and make a report. If you believe the child is in immediate danger, call 911. Please be prepared to provide identifying information and, if known, the whereabouts of the child.
CyberTipline: 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678)
The nation’s centralized reporting system for the online exploitation of children. Make reports of suspected online enticement of children for sexual acts, child sexual molestation, child sexual abuse material, child sex tourism, child sex trafficking, unsolicited obscene materials sent to a child, misleading domain names, and misleading words or digital images on the internet. Submit a report online or by phone at 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678).
The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in the United States.
A free service to help remove or stop the online sharing of nude, partially nude, or sexually explicit images or videos taken of youth when they were under 18 years old. Youth can remain anonymous using the service without needing to send images or videos to anyone.