Sextortion of our tweens and teens (especially our boys) is just escalating! Why? Because social media makes it so easy, and parents generally have no clue that it’s even happening! Hormonal teen brains defy logic and boys especially are falling for this scam far more often and more easily than parents think.
What is sextortion?
Basically, sextortion is blackmail. It’s a serious crime that occurs when someone threatens to distribute your private and sensitive material (ie nudes) if you don’t provide them more images of a sexual nature, sexual favours, or in most case, money.
Where does it happen?
Predators tend to lurk in online platforms like social media and gaming apps that are popular playgrounds for kids. Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok and Discord are prime hunting grounds for predators and criminals looking for an easy target!
How does it happen?
Much more easily than you think! Teen brains are wired for positive feedback and a large social media following gives them a social status boost. Yes, it might seem rather artificial to the average parent, but this is the norm for the average teen. The result is that our teens will happily accept follower requests, even from accounts they don’t know in real life. And let’s be honest, how many teen boys are really going to turn down a cute “15 year old girl” or ravishing “neglected wife”, if they come knocking?
Criminals, acting solo or in a syndicate, and sometimes even from jail, create a social media account, often on Instagram but also on Snapchat, TikTok and Discord. They pose as other teen boys or girls, modelling or sports agencies looking for new talent, or even bored housewives, and set up fake social media accounts. Their social media profile will be filled with sexy pictures that are not quite risqué enough to warrant a deeper investigation by the social media platform if reported.
The criminal will send a follow request to your teen, and once accepted, start a chat as the fake persona they have chosen, via the direct messaging functionality on the social media app (otherwise known as DM’s). “She” will tell your son that he has caught her eye (yeah right, in a sea of social media accounts), is very cute (OK maybe he is), has potential to be a model (hmm hmm), or a brand ambassador (seriously?), whatever feeds their need for positive feedback. The criminal will soon suggest moving to WhatsApp “to make it easier”. Perhaps “she” will ask if he wants to play a game, where “she” will take off her shirt and send a picture to your son and then ask him to do the same. Or send an application form for a lucrative modelling contract which requires him to send photos in his speedo or underwear. Whatever ruse is used, it won’t be long before your son has been convinced to send a full nude photo back. And yes, our teens send them one back. Why? Refer back to the teen brain wiring and it’s need for positive feedback!
Once the criminal has your teen’s nude, the demands will start for payment to stop the image being released to friends and family, whose profiles will have been grabbed from your teen’s social media account. As they have your teen’s number, blocking them won’t help. They’ll just keep coming back again on a new number.
Your teen will now be scared, confused, embarrassed and very stressed. Most teens will try to deal with it on their own, rather than bringing in a parent or trusted adult to help them and having to weather the disappointment, fury and shame they expect to rain down on them. This is the danger zone we want to try and avoid at all costs as suicide is the worst-case scenario.
How can teens avoid sextortion?
Obviously never sharing any explicit images or videos with anyone is the best preventative option, but we all wish it were so easy to get that message through to teen brains!
Teens need to check the privacy and security settings of their social media accounts. If social media accounts are public, a predator has access to a lot of information without having to try too hard. And it will be harder to block them should you need too.
Ignoring follow requests and messages from strangers is something we have to keep drumming on about. Your teen doesn’t need to follow an account back for it to have access to them and their information. Keep talking about how easily people can pretend to be anything or anyone online!
What should you do if it happens?
If they are being sextorted, teens need to remember they are not alone, they are likely just one of many victims being targeted by the same person or syndicate. These criminals will be demanding, forceful and relentless. No matter the threats, they are the ones breaking the law and it must be reported!
Having helped a few families through this traumatic experience, and consulted with police and private investigators along the way, we’ve developed a Sextortion Guide for teens and parents. In a nutshell, this is our recommended response to a sextortion attempt:
- Screenshot the messages on both the social media platform as well as WhatsApp.
- Send a reply along the lines of “I have talked to my parents and they are contacting the police to open a case of intimidation, extortion and blackmail at the special investigations unit”.
- Then block the social media account and the WhatsApp number sending the threats. This step may need to be repeated a few times.
- Report the account to the social media platform.
- Report the matter to any one or more of these nodes > your local police station > Crime Stop 0860010111 and ask for a FCS or SECI detective > Department of Social Development Command Centre 0800 428 428.There are 176 SAPS Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences (FCS) units nationwide and at least one Serial and Electronic Crime Investigation (SECI) unit per province. These units focus on investigating sexual offences against children and crime facilitated through electronic media.
What can you do as a parent?
- Keep checking your teen’s followers and talk to them about deleting ones that look dodgy. Any account that is following many more accounts than are following them back should be treated as suspect.
- Set any available in-app parental control settings: Instagram has Instagram Supervision and TikTok has Family Pairing but unfortunately Snapchat and Discord are very difficult to monitor.
- Install a parental control like Bark to give you alerts about suspect DMs on social media apps, and requests for nudes on WhatsApp.
- Make sure your teen can turn to you or another trusted adult if this kind of things happens to them. They need to know they can get unconditional support from an adult when they get into trouble online.
- If you are lucky enough that your teen does turn to you for help, try to stay calm, suppress your emotion and focus on helping them first, giving them the assurance that you will always have their backs no matter what.
The reality is that there is very little recourse for sextortion cases. It is very hard to prosecute these scams as they are happening from all over the world, cell phones numbers are hard to track back to individuals, and police just don’t have the resources. But we need to keep reporting them, as sometimes we get lucky and can track the perpetrator and make an arrest.
Most of all we need to stop the unnecessary teen trauma and deaths by making sure our kids can turn to us when they need us!