The online sextortion epidemic: What you and your teen need to know

Two major online publications posted articles recently about teens and sexting. One warned that the actual percentage of teens who are sexting is likely much higher than we previously thought. The other shed light on the epidemic of sextortion, the act of using sexually explicit texts and images as blackmail to manipulate teens into sending increasingly graphic content. So, here’s what we know: 1)sexting is becoming more common amongst teens, and 2) online predators are taking advantage of this trend by blackmailing teens to satisfy sick fantasies.

### Can It Happen to My Teen?

Sextortion is one of those horrible things we hope will never happen to our kids. But in reality, falling prey to online predators is easier than you might think, and it’s happening to teens from families just like yours. It’s become so common, in fact, that entire police tasks forces are now devoted to catching these cyber criminals in the act. So, can it happen to your child? Absolutely! All it takes is a momentary lapse in judgment for a predator to wreak havoc on your teen’s emotions, self-esteem, social life, and sense of security.

### How Does Sextortion Occur?

Put simply, sextortion occurs because people can pretend to be anyone they want online. It’s terrifyingly easy for grown men to masquerade as teens, luring their victims into what appears to them to be an innocent, peer-to-peer chat. Many times, these predators will spend weeks, months, or in some cases, years grooming their prey. Once they’ve established trust through hours of chatting and loads of compliments and flattery, they move in for the kill by requesting a nude or sexually explicit photo. Once the photo is sent, it can never be retrieved, giving the predator unlimited opportunities for blackmail. The predator may then threaten to share the photo with others unless the teen shares increasingly graphic content, including photos of a sex act in progress. In 2012, a 28 year-old man was arrested after tormenting a 15-year old girl for months. The police were finally called after the man asked her to perform oral sex on her 13-year old brother.

### How Dangerous Is Sextortion?

The most troubling thing about sextortion is its unlimited potential for harm. Even after the incident is over, the long-term effects on a teen’s mental and emotional health can be debilitating. Consider Amanda Todd, the Canadian teen who took her own life after being tormented for years by someone whom she had video-chatted with online. In this instance, the predator convinced the then 13-year old to show him her breasts. She had no idea he would take a screenshot and use it to ruin her life.

### Protecting Your Teen from Sextortionists

Sextortion is a very scary thing, but there are some steps you can take to ensure it doesn’t happen to your teen:

– Teach your child that everything they share online is public and permanent. There is no real delete button.
– Warn teens that photos sent via text message as well as via messaging apps such as Snapchat can be saved and spread in an instant.
– Use monitoring software to see who your child is texting and chatting with.

Most importantly, make sure your teen knows that it is never ok to send nude pictures to anyone, ever. What may seem like innocent flirting to a naïve teen could easily become a nightmare situation that could haunt her for the rest of her life.

#### References

“Sextortion” Is An Online “Epidemic” Against Children

Study Finds Most Teens Text Before They’re 18

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