It often starts with an anonymous text to a child or teen. The sender claims to have incriminating pictures and threatens to release the images across social media unless more sexually explicit images or videos are sent to the perpetrator. Scared, and hoping the harassment will stop, the minor complies with what is demanded. Unfortunately, the cycle often continues—in some cases for several months or even years.
Attacks like these, deemed sextortion by law enforcement professionals, are on the rise according to a report from Barracuda Research, a data protection firm based in California. A 10-year study conducted by the Cyberbullying Research Center found about 28% of student participants reported being the victim of cyberbullying or sextortion attacks. The surge in cases and overall risk may relate to the vast increase in use and access to the internet by teens across the United States. According to the Center, 95% of teens in the United States are online, with the majority reporting they access the internet on mobile devices, decreasing opportunities for oversight and monitoring by parents and caregivers.
Unbeknownst to many schools and districts, it is very possible that sextortion is happening via communication on school-provided technology. This predicament can represent a great liability if the appropriate measures to detect this type of content are not in place—and if school staff and educators are not properly educated and trained on how to react to its discovery.
At Gaggle, we’re working every day to prevent young people from being victimized online. In fact, our Gaggle Safety Management solution blocked and reported over 1,700 instances of child pornography last year. But there are also opportunities for parents, students, and educators to work together to prevent and stop sextortion.
Create Safe Spaces to Report Incidents
A recent study by eSchool Media revealed that victims of sextortion often exhibit the same mental and physiological symptoms as those who were physically abused. They may also be reluctant to report the crime for fear of additional cyberbullying, harassment, or even physical harm. It is imperative that we not shame victims of sextoration, and instead create safe avenues that encourage children to speak up and report these incidents without the fear of repercussion.
Explain the Consequences of Sharing Explicit Photos
Sharing explicit images has real consequences for children and teens. They may feel embarrassed, humiliated, hopeless, guilty, and ashamed if images are shared, discovered, or viewed without their consent. Unfortunately, images can be distributed easily across social media at a rapid pace. Once the image becomes available, it may be almost impossible to control or erase, leading to increased opportunity for more physical abuse and cyberbullying.
Deaths by suicide amongst school-aged children related to cyberbullying continue to increase. In fact, the passing of Grace’s Law in Maryland in 2013 was the result of the suicide of a 15 year-old high school student who was repeatedly cyberbullied on social media. Under this law, those who bully someone under the age of 18 through a smart phone or computer could be fined up to $500 or face up to one year in prison. There are currently efforts to expand the law's protective reach to include incidents such as sextortion.
There can also be serious legal implications for sharing explicit images via digital devices for both children/teens and their parents, including the possibility of being charged for child pornography and potentially having to register as a sex offender. By having open conversations about these consequences, children and teens will be better equipped to recognize the risks of sharing dangerous content and feel more confident in reporting instances should they occur.
Parental and Educator Involvement
One of the most important ways both parents and educators can prevent coercion of minors online is to stay involved in their internet usage. At home, parents can work with their children to agree on rules for internet use, including length of time, how to behave toward others, how to handle personal information, what is appropriate to share with others, how to respond to messages from strangers, and what sites are acceptable to visit.
At the district level, K-12 educators and administrators can partner with safety solutions like Gaggle to manage student safety on school-provided technology. Over the past 20 years, Gaggle has scanned more than 13 billion pieces of student content, flagging over 151 million items for review by its team of safety experts. Gaggle’s experts look for signs of self-harm, depression, thoughts of suicide, substance abuse, cyberbullying, and credible threats of violence against others, resulting in over 1,500 lives saved since 2016.
If you are an educator concerned about potential incidents of sextortion on school-provided technology, please contact us for a free safety audit to understand how your students are using your school- and district-provided communication tools.