‘Sextortion’ on the rise: Are your kids safe?

By now, most of us have heard stories about the increase in teen sexting—when cell phone and Internet users create and exchange provocative and nude sexual images of themselves using their cell phone or computer’s built-in digital camera. In a 2009 survey from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, one out of five teens reported that they had electronically sent or posted online, nude or seminude pictures or videos of themselves.

An article out this weekend discusses how many federal prosecutors and those of us in the child safety arena are also seeing an upswing in cases of sexual extortion closely linked to teen sexting.  Teens who post and send provocative pictures are opening themselves up to being blackmailed not only by their peers, but also by strangers and pornographers who threaten to expose their behavior to friends and family unless they pose for more explicit pornography.

While most teens who send sexually suggestive content are sending it to boyfriends and girlfriends, others report that they are sending such material to those they want to “hook up” with or even to people they only met online.

One of the most deceptive lies that teens are believing is that documenting and sending provocative and nude images and videos of themselves is an empowering act of sexual freedom and expression.  Although many public figures have spoken out against teen sexting, common culture and those that teens look to for their cues, celebrate a sexuality without bounds, and often promote that adults engage in virtual sex and sexting as a way to spice up their sex life.

As one of our Internet Safety 101 featured experts, Dr. Judith Reisman explains,

“Kids are imitating what they see.  Children are doing what they are supposed to do.  The children are supposed to imitate what the adult society says is good for important women and men.  We show them those pictures, we show them those acts, and they will do that because that is what children are supposed to do.”  You can watch Judith’s full commentary as well as the testimony from our teens about the harms of pornography here.

What a 180 it must feel like for a teen to first get a rush from sending one of these images as a form of “flirtation” to being forced to take more pornographic pictures and videos in a vicious cycle of exploitation that is not too far removed from what could be described as a form of virtual sex slavery.  This is something we also see in cases of sexual predation, where a sexual predator has formed a close, online relationship with a teen and may even have groomed the teen into sending nude pictures or videos.  When the teen tries to break the relationship off, the sexual predator will use the images they have received to blackmail them and prevent them from going to their parents or authorities.

A recent federal affidavit included a special term for these type of crime: “sextortion”.  A few recent, high profile cases were cited in the AP article:

  • In Alabama, Jonathan Vance, 24, of Auburn was sentenced to 18 years in prison in April after he admitted sending threatening e-mails on Facebook and MySpace extorting nude photos from more than 50 young women in Alabama, Pennsylvania and Missouri.
  • In Wisconsin, Anthony Stancl, 18, received 15 years in prison in February after prosecutors said he posed as a girl on Facebook to trick male high school classmates into sending him nude cell phone photos, which he then used to extort them for sex.
  • A 31-year-old California man was arrested in June on extortion charges after authorities said he hacked into more than 200 computers and threatened to expose nude photos he found unless their owners posed for more sexually explicit videos. Forty-four of the victims were juveniles, authorities said. Federal prosecutors said he was even able to remotely activate some victims’ webcams without their knowledge and record them undressing or having sex.

As parents, educators and mentors, it is so important to educate the children under your care about healthy sexuality, healthy behaviors and healthy sexual boundaries.  If your child ever feels threatened or is threatened in this way, make sure they know they should come to you immediately.  Kids will be kids, and in this crazy world filled with so many harmful and exploitive messages about sexuality, no child is immune.  Parents are always surprised when they find out their little boy or girl has become involved in this, but unfortunately, we know that sexting has become normalized in many teen circles.  Let your children know that nothing they send via their mobile device or through the Internet is truly private or anonymous.  Talk to them about cases like those above, and re-educate them that this sort of behavior is not sexually liberating, but rather, sending this type of content can actually lead them down a path of extortion, blackmail, victimization and even sexual slavery.   In addition, when kids create sexual images and videos of themselves, they are actually creating child pornography, which is a felony.

For tips to help you protect your kids from sexting see our page HERE or review the full content in our Internet Safety 101 program, which will help you become educated, equipped and empowered to become an effective cyberparent.  Your children are worth fighting for, and we are hear to help.

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    1. Sextortion « CBS New York – News, Sports, Weather, Traffic and the Best of NY
    2. Analyzing The Disturbing World Of ‘Sextortion’ « CBS New York – News, Sports, Weather, Traffic and the Best of NY

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