WHAT IS SEXTORTION?
Sextortion is a form of blackmail in which the attacker threatens to send intimate images or videos of the victim to others if they do not pay them or give them additional images or video. Although this can happen to anyone of any age or gender, attackers tend to target younger victims and in March of 2022, the FBI warned of an upsurge in cases in which teen boys were targeted (read two stories below).
It is important to note, that although serious, sextortion is rare. According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, 5% of teens have been the target of sextortion. But what is particularly concerning is that embarrassed teens are reluctant to tell their parents or a trusted adult about such incidences. This underscores the importance of keeping an open door of communication with your children regarding all digital activities, even those that are difficult to discuss.
Hopefully these resources will help. Watch, or listen to, "Sextortion on the Rise: What Parents Need to Know" and see our show notes and resources below.
How does sextortion typically happen?
Those involved might approach a target on social media, often using it form a relationship and also to find out who their other online contacts are. After that they typically attempt to move the conversation to another platform (such as Google Hangouts). There they might try to attain compromising photos or images through reciprocation (sending them one first) or by offering them something in exchange. Once they have such an image, they usually ask for money or for more images, threatening to share what they have with their friends and followers.
What is going on developmentally that might make a teen prone to engage in these sorts of behaviors?
Developmentally, this period for teens is very social, outward looking; this makes them eager to build social bonds. They are very interested in and vulnerable to social validation and flattery. They are also very sensitive to rejection and will often do things “against their judgment” to maintain connections. This also makes them less likely to seek help for fear of disappointing parents or suffering rejection and “getting in trouble”—especially if that means losing phone privileges.
Also developmentally, the prefrontal cortex, the seat of risk, long-range planning, problem-solving and future “vision” is not fully developed. This makes it harder for teens to anticipate future consequences---making them more susceptible to hedonic impulses. They also have a hard time visualizing overcoming challenges.
We also need to mention perceived social norms. TikTok and Instagram are full of overly sexualized images. It’s often hard for a teen to differentiated between what’s not ok (sharing images of themselves) vs. what they see (“everyone’s doing it.”).
What signs should parents look out for to know if their child is engaged in such activities?
Behavior outside the norm.
Detachment from everything happening externally.
Loss of interest in regular activities; grades dropping.
Avoidance of friends and family.
Excessive escapist behaviors (gaming, TikTok, alcohol, drugs). Note that escapist behaviors are triggered by the need to escape something.
Sleeping and eating too much (or too little)
How should a parent talk to their kids about all of this?
Take a deep breath—as difficult and emotional as this for parents, it’s ten times worse for kids because it involves shame and fear of disappointing parents (yes they do care about that even if it seems like they don’t).
Rather than scaring teens silly (more than is absolutely necessary), focus on skills and actions to take to be safe.
Brainstorm solutions/role play options “What would (or could) you do if…."
Reinforce that even when bad stuff happens they can get through it and that you will be there for them.
Let them know it can happen to anyone—everyone wants to be liked and have relationships.
Tell them never to give into the threat, nine times out of ten perpetrators do not follow through on what they say they will do.
Cut off contact with the perpetrator and report the incident to authorities and the platform where it takes place.
Closely related to sextortion is "catfishing," please share this student video from our Cyber Civics curriculum with young people to teach them how to keep themselves safe from this online threat.
Teach Students About Sextortion!
We believe that teaching young people about the harms, along with the possibilities, of digital tools is an essential component of "digital literacy." That's why a lesson on sextortion is included in Level 3 of the Cyber Civics curriculum. If you would like to learn more or sample this lesson, contact us.