Law enforcement officials are concerned about “sextortion” via fake images — an emerging trend in the online exploitation of children. Here’s what’s happening: predators are doctoring photos and videos of children into sexual images to blackmail them for more sexual images. This editing can include everything from making a photo of a child in a bathing suit appear nude to putting a child’s face onto the body of someone engaged in a sex act. The offender then shows the victim the edited images and threatens to release them to their parents, friends, school, or social media unless the child sends them more, often increasingly graphic, photos or videos. Predators can sometimes bully the child into extending the abuse to friends or younger siblings or invite other predators into the sextortion to request specific acts or images.
Parents should know that elementary school-aged kids are increasingly victims of sextortion, that the practice is insidious and widespread, and that it is a significant threat to kids’ safety and mental health.
- Elementary school-aged kids to teens are victims of sextortion. According to the FBI, their youngest sextortion victim was 7, and internet crimes against children experts have noted a trend of predators targeting 8-10 year-olds.
- Predators often pose as kids the same age as their target, meeting children on social media sites and gaming platforms. They initiate a relationship by offering things like cheat codes or coupons to advance in a game, money or gifts, or a romantic relationship.
- Sextortion and other forms of online sexual exploitation are widespread. The FBI estimates more than half a million child predators are active online every day, and 1 in 4 kids report that someone they believe was an adult has had a sexual interaction with them online.
- Sextortion is dangerous for kids’ mental and emotional wellbeing. There have been several recent examples of teens dying by suicide following sextortion, and the Department of Justice has noted “alarming rates” of cutting, depression, and other forms of self-harm in victims.
ParentsTogether, a community of more than 2.5 million parents that offers parenting news and resources, advises parents to take the following steps to reduce their children’s risks online — all online experiences come with some health and safety risks.
- Talk your children about sextortion, sending nudes, and sexual experiences online: Tell kids they can always talk to you about problems online. Set the expectation that your kids can share things they see or hear online that make them feel weird, upset, curious, or scared, and that doing so won’t make you angry or make them lose access to their device. Building trust with your kids is critical to preventing or addressing sextortion attempts.
- Set parental controls: Set them for every app and platform your kids use — especially any apps with chat functions. Parental controls aren’t perfect, but they can keep kids away from some inappropriate contact and content.
- Wait on the smartphone until they are older: Many child development experts recommend delaying getting kids an internet-connected smartphone as long as possible. For younger kids who need a way to contact parents, consider a basic flip phone or phone designed for younger kids without internet access.
- Block stranger chat sites: Some apps and websites like ChatRoulette and Omegle exist solely to connect strangers and pose an outsized risk to kids for sextortion and other forms of sexual abuse. These sites aren’t appropriate for minor children and should be blocked.
- Charge devices at night in a common area outside your child’s bedroom. Limiting your child’s access to devices at night can both improve their sleep and mental health and reduce their risk of exploitation.
While parents are a critical part of keeping kids safe online, tech platforms also need to address the significant health and safety risks their products create for kids. Tech platforms can help prevent sextortion by preventing predators from connecting with kids on their platform and sharing sexually explicit images. ParentsTogether recommends tech platforms take the following steps to prevent sextortion:
- Enforce age limits: Most social media platforms’ terms of service say they are for 13+, but are used by millions of younger children. Platforms can help prevent abuse of the youngest and most vulnerable kids by keeping them off the platforms until they are 13.
- Don’t allow strangers to contact kids: Children’s accounts should be private by default, and platforms should put in additional protections to prevent strangers from being able to contact kids.
- Offer accessible parental controls: All platforms should offer robust parental controls to allow parents to create safe boundaries that are appropriate for their individual child. Parental controls should be easy to find, access, understand, and use.
- Make blocking easy: Research has shown blocking is the most popular prevention tool with kids and is used more often than reporting. Blocking functions should be easily accessible to all users, especially children.
- Find and report sexual images: Platforms should invest in both human and technical solutions to detect sexual images of children and report them to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.