Imagine this. You’re 15, feeling unsure about yourself in the world, possibly even a little lonely. One day, a pretty girl starts messaging you on Instagram. She’s kind and funny. She has pets and several happy snaps of her friends and family on her profile – so she looks ‘normal’. Messages are running pretty hot for a few days and you’re loving it. You’re getting on well and are so pumped that someone likes you for you. But then she asks for a nude pic of you, including your face. You’re unsure what to do but don’t want to lose the vibe with this great girl. So, you send it. But there’s a big problem. The ‘normal’ looking girl is in fact a scammer.
In 2022, the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation (ACCCE) averaged more than 100 reports of sextortion every month in 2022. But Australian law enforcement authorities believe the real statistics may in fact be much higher with many estimating than less than 25% of cases are reported. Australian Federal Police Commander Hilda Sirec said that data showed more than 90% of victims were male and aged predominantly between 15 and 17 years of age. Police have seen victims as young as 10 years old.
How Does It Work?
Sextortion or sexual extortion is a form of blackmail where someone threatens to share a nude or sexual image of yourself unless you meet their demands. Often the victim is tricked or coerced into sending the images. Offenders may demand money, more images or in-person sexual favours. Sexual images may also be captured while a young person is on live stream or video. This is known as ‘capping’.
At the risk of stating the obvious, this can be an incredibly stressful process for the victim. Many offenders have mastered the art of manipulation and can make the victim feel like there is no way out of the situation. The constant threat of sharing content with family and friends coupled with the relentless demands can understandably, send many young people into a mental health tailspin. The shame and embarrassment are all consuming. Many victims feel like they have done something wrong and will be punished by parents and/or prosecuted by police if anyone finds out.
A Global Phenomena
The sextortion trend is not isolated to Australia. There is currently a global trend of sextortion targeting teenage boys to send sexual images and threatening to share them unless they pay up. Organised crime syndicates are believed to be behind the trend, having diversified from just targeting adults.
In December 2022, the Australian Federal Police revealed that more than 500 Australian bank accounts, financial services and digital currency accounts linked to sextortion syndicates targeting Aussie teens had been shut down.
What To Do If You Child Is Affected
If your child is a victim, praise them for being brave and coming to you for help. And be grateful that you have an opportunity to help them! Here is what else I suggest:
1. Be Supportive
The most important thing to do is commit to supporting your teen. Reassure them that you will help them, that they are not in trouble, and that you’ll protect them.
2. Collect Evidence
Help your teen collect as much proof as possible. Take screenshots of all interactions. These will be essential to help identify the perpetrator.
3. Report It
Contact your local police station or the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation (ACCCE) and report the incident. Please reassure your teen that they will not be prosecuted despite the fact they shared intimate content. Reporting the crime could prevent other teens becoming victims.
4. Stop Contact
All contact with the person blackmailing your teen needs to stop ASAP.
5. Do Not Pay
Under no circumstance should you pay the blackmailer, give them more money or more intimate content – despite their demands.
6. Get Support
The ACCCE has developed an online blackmail and sexual exploitation response kit. You can access a copy here.
In my opinion, the best way to get ahead of this disturbing trend is to focus on prevention. So, why not take the time to ensure your teens have the privacy settings on all their social media accounts set to ‘friends only’ or ‘private’? That way, they can’t be contacted by anyone they don’t know. Also, remind your kids that friends they meet online can’t be trusted like real ‘in-person’ friends so no sharing of personal information.
And keep the communication open and regular. If your kids know you are genuinely interested in all aspects of their life – both online and offline – and that you have their back, then they are far more likely to come to you if and when there is a problem. And isn’t that what we are here for? To help them navigate the tricky stuff.
Happy digital parenting