What you need to know about the growing online safety issue of sextortion

A photo of phone with a screen that shows that their photos have been compromised
Photo by Shutterstock / Lea Rae

Keeping kids safe online has been part of the BSA’s agenda ever since the internet was invented. That includes keeping families informed of the constantly evolving ways in which cybercriminals seek to do harm.

One of the more recent scary trends is sextortion.

“Some kids are sending pictures of themselves to someone who they think is another child,” says Glen Pounder, the BSA’s Youth Protection Executive. “Often, it’s not another child. It’s a criminal. … The threats that these criminals make are horrendous. Threatening to send the images to their parents, to their school, to their Scout troop …”

There are two things parents should regularly stress to their kids. Whether it’s in the car, at home during dinner or while relaxing during a family vacation, remind your children regularly to never share sexually explicit photos, and, if they find themselves in a position in which they’ve made a mistake, that it’s always OK to come to their parents for help.

“A kid needs to know, ‘I’ve made a mistake,’” says Pounder, “’but it’s OK because people have my back.’ That disclosure can save that kid’s life.”

What is sextortion?

Sextortion is a form of online exploitation where perpetrators use explicit images, videos or messages to blackmail victims into performing further acts against their will. For example, “send us money or else we’ll share this content with your family and friends.”

The initial content is often obtained through deception, hacking or manipulation. Victims of sextortion may send explicit messages or photos, thinking they’re communicating with someone their own age, only to find out that they just sent compromising material to a stranger that cannot be trusted.

The size of this problem has increased exponentially in the last couple of years. Recently, groups of organized criminals have begun using this type of deception for financial gain.

How does sextortion work?

Sextortion usually begins with the perpetrator working to gain access to compromising material, which is often sexually explicit photos. This may involve hacking into personal devices, but more often involves manipulating victims by pretending to be someone they aren’t, perhaps in an online game.

If the victim has a presence on social media, it can be easy for a perpetrator to figure out their first and last name, where they live and where they go to school. Armed with that information, the perpetrator can pretend to be a friend of a friend or a schoolmate they’ve never met.

After engaging the victim online, the conversation escalates to the point that this stranger is trying to convince the child to send them inappropriate images of themselves. Once the stranger has those images, they threaten to send them to family, friends and schoolmates unless the youth sends them money. This process can happen very quickly, sometimes within minutes.

Who could become a victim of sextortion?

Anyone. However, perpetrators usually try to exploit the vulnerabilities of individuals who are not aware of the risks of sharing intimate content online. The anonymity of the internet makes it easy for perpetrators to appear out of nowhere and disappear just as fast.

What happens to kids who fall victim to sextortion?

Sextortion can inflict severe emotional distress on its victims. The fear of exposure, the shame associated with intimate content and the loss of control over one’s own narrative can lead to anxiety, depression and, in extreme cases, suicidal thoughts. Additionally, victims of sextortion may be afraid to come forward, fearing that they’ll be in trouble with their parents or law enforcement.

Victims of sextortion are not always groomed for weeks or days. Sometimes, when a child makes a mistake, things can escalate extremely quickly. Within hours or even minutes, the child may feel that they’ve done irreparable harm and have nowhere to turn.

How can I prevent my child from becoming a victim?

Teach your kids an important rule of online safety: Never, ever share sexually explicit photos online. Remind them that if a stranger online starts asking them questions about where they live and where they go to school, it’s time for them to tell a trusted adult.

Just as importantly, kids need to know that if they make a mistake and share a photo of themselves, all is not lost. It’s important to reassure your child on a regular basis that if they ever make a mistake like that, that they can always come to you, and that they won’t be in trouble, and that your first concern will always be to protect them and keep them safe.

What kind of resources does the BSA provide to educate kids on being safe online?

Cub Scouts have The Protect Yourself Rules Preview Adventure, which helps children recognize, respond to, and report abuse, either in person or online. You won’t find the word “sextortion” in there, but you will find educational materials about the importance of creating good online habits, including not sharing personal information or photos of yourself with strangers.

Kids in the older BSA programs can view a series of personal safety awareness videos, which includes a segment on digital safety. Also, the Digital Technology merit badge is designed to add context to the technology used by kids every day and to help them become safe and smart users of all sorts of digital devices.

Parents and volunteers can check out the Digital Safety and Online Scouting Activities Safety Moment.

What should parents do if their child becomes a victim of sextortion?

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children recommends the following:

  • Remember, the blackmailer is to blame, not the child.
  • Cooperating or paying money rarely stops the blackmail. Get help before deciding whether to pay money or otherwise comply with the blackmailer.
  • Report the offending account via the platform’s safety feature, if applicable.
  • Block the suspect, but do not delete your profile or messages. That data can be helpful in stopping the blackmailer.
  • If images of your child are posted online, there are people who can help get them down. Click here and here to learn more about this process.

Where can I go to learn more?

Click here for the FBI’s page on sextortion, which includes information for kids and teens as well as adults and caregivers.

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children has a site dedicated to information on keeping kids safe online, and also a page specifically dedicated to sextortion.

And the official website of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has some helpful information as well.

About Aaron Derr 466 Articles
Aaron Derr is the senior editor of Scout Life and Scouting magazines, and also a former Cubmaster and Scouts BSA volunteer.