ParentsTogether, a national organization of more than 3 million members, is responding to an increase in reports of “sextortion” from their members by warning parents and offering ways to keep kids safer online. Online scammers and predators are targeting teens via social media platforms, often posing as underage kids themselves, befriending or starting fake romantic relationships with their victims, and then enticing them into sharing sexually explicit photos and videos. Once the victim sends the content, the scammer then demands payment via a payment app and threatens to share the images online if the victim doesn’t comply. The FBI is sounding the alarm over this growing threat, and warns that even if the victim does pay, the extortionist is unlikely to end their demands for payment. In some cases, the scammer may demand increasingly extreme sexual acts or images instead of or in addition to money.
Parents should know that sextortion cases are sharply rising, the majority of victims are between the ages of 14 and 17, and victims can often feel like they have nowhere to turn for help, including their parents, resulting in serious physical and mental consequences.
- Sextortion is on the rise. In 2021, there were more than 2,300 reported victims under the age of 20; in the first quarter of 2022 there have already been more than 1000 victims. There are likely significantly more unreported victims.
- Sextortion scams target kids of all genders and sexual orientations, and has been especially growing among teen boys.
- Sextortion is dangerous for kids’ mental and emotional wellbeing. There have been several recent examples of teens dying by suicide following sextortion, often within hours of receiving the first threat.
- Scammers are often outside the U.S., making them difficult to trace for law enforcement, and each one could have hundreds of victims around the world.
- Any platform can be a starting point for a sextortion scheme whether it’s a game app like Roblox, messaging app like Whatsapp or, social media app like Facebook or Instagram.
All online experiences come with some health and safety risks, however, ParentsTogether, a community of more than 3 million parents that offers parenting news and resources, recommends parents to take the following steps to reduce their children’s risks online.
- Talk to your kids about the risks of sextortion: The internet is a powerful tool, but it is also dangerous. Give your kids the knowledge they need in order to avoid sextortion scams or any other online dangers. Children should understand that this type of scam exists and that a stranger you meet online could be befriending them with ill intent.
- Tell your children not to accept friend requests from strangers: Many platforms do not block strangers from having the ability to communicate with your children. Just like in the physical world, contact with strangers poses a real threat and should be avoided. Tell your children to block such messages and to let you know when they occur and if they persist. 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.
- Check your child’s social media history and profile regularly and monitor posts: Regularly spot checking your child’s social media activity will help keep you better informed as to what they do online, how they use the platforms and who they communicate with.
- 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.
- Keep the evidence and tell the authorities: If your child has been asked for sexual images or threatened online, save all images and communications between the scammer and the victim. Adult coercion of a child to produce sexual images is a serious offense which carries penalties up to a life sentence in prison. If your child has been victimized you should alert the authorities immediately. For more information, review this information from the FBI Sextortion bulletin.
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.
Click here to see more ways ParentsTogether is asking tech companies to keep kids safe.