As information technology becomes increasingly present in the professional and personal lives of society, the frequency of sexting and sextortion continues to rise. As digital tools are incorporated into learning, children have more access to electronic devices now than ever before. Education is therefore a vital mechanism to spread awareness and instill prevention skills in children. This article aims to provide relief through education for parents, caregivers, general users of technology, and victims of sextortion.
Sexting can be defined broadly as “the sharing of personal, suggestive text messages, or nude or nearly nude photographs or videos through electronic devices” (Ouytsel et al., 2020, p. 36). Research estimates sexting behaviors have increased over the past decade, approximately 15 to 27 percent of youths are sending or receiving sexting messages, and increases for high school aged and adult participants, at 50 percent or higher.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Sextortion is a serious crime that occurs when someone threatens to distribute your private and sensitive material if you do not provide them images of sexual nature, sexual acts, or money. The Child Rescue Coalition estimates 72.5 million unique IP addresses worldwide have shared or downloaded sexually explicit images, 90 percent of children are abused by someone known to their family, children are most vulnerable between the ages of 7 to 13, predators victimize 50-100 individuals in their lifetime, and young girls are disproportionality affected to boys. With the rising rates of sexting, it is imperative to educate parents and potential participants on what can be done to protect family members from sextortion.
Researchers from Thorn and the Crimes against Children Research Center conducted a study of individuals from ages 18 to 25 (n=1631) using ads through Facebook. The results of the study had several overlapping and escalating conclusions. The study showed 83 percent of the respondents were females between the ages of 18 and 19 years of age, and approximately 40 percent were in their early 20s’s. During face-to-face interactions in which compromising images were taken, perpetrators threatened to disseminate collected images to humiliate, embarrass, or force reconciliation with the victim. In online situations, perpetrators used sexual images obtained from the victim to demand additional images or create forced sexual interactions. 60 percent of these cases were face-to-face interactions, and 40 percent were interactions occurring online.
A smaller proportion of the respondents in this study were male and perpetrators used elaborate or exotic deceptions to coerce cooperation. The most serious cases involved assault and stalking victims up to six months or more. These crimes were embedded with the feeling of shame and embarrassment of the victims who were hesitant from seeking help. Only 1 out of 5 of the respondents sought help from the web site or platform where the incident occurred. 40 percent of the respondents claimed the web site or apps were not helpful.
For a global perspective, a first-time study in Spain consisting of 1,370 Spanish college students, aimed at examining sexting behaviors with online victimization, and how mental health relates to global psychopathology, anxiety, and depression of victims. Using validated mental health measures, 37.1 percent of the respondents created their own content, 60.3 had received content, and 35.5 percent had sent and received content. The sample also revealed significant differences between men and women in relation to non-consensual victimization. The differences in gender only accounted for depression prevalence rates but not for anxiety or global psychopathology. Online victimization is associated with poorer mental health in males and females, while females showed poorer mental health levels with consensual sexting. Further studies are necessary to determine if children in the United States have similar results.
Last year, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) and the White House created a learning platform to help educate parents on online child exploitation, the Safety Pledge Toolkit, which can be conducted asynchronously or synchronously between parents, teachers, and children. The Safety Pledge Toolkit uses NetSmartz to build skills in children to resist exploitation. The program offers games, age-appropriate videos, e-books and printable activity sheets for families to converse about digital safety. Older children have videos designed specifically for them. “Your Photo Fate” offers a questionnaire activity with children after they watch a short video, to explain their experiences with their parents without fear of punishment and judgment.
The platform also provides parents five tips to help keep their home environment safe:
Make and keep ground rules for technology use,
Adapt monitoring techniques as technology changes,
Engage with your children in the game itself,
Have real time discussions with your children without judgment and reaction,
and limiting technology access in lieu of total removal in disciplinary actions.
Parents and caregivers are encouraged to interact with their children without pressuring or judging their children’s actions, even if they are alarmed. By remaining calm and nonjudgmental, parents are able to foster open ended dialog with their children in order to navigate diverse situations. Parents are also encouraged to thank their children for their willingness to talk to them.
With proper education and thoughtful approach, parents have the opportunity to create lasting open-ended dialog with their children. NCMEC, Thorn, and other organizations provide parents and caregivers with key information on how to protect their families from online child exploitation and sextortion. Parents should continually educate themselves on technological changes and resources, as the biggest aspect of combating sextortion is the relationships and trust among family members.
If the child in your life is being sexually exploited, reach out to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children Cyber Tip Line. You can contact the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children 24 hours a day at 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678). ❦
Child Rescue Coalition. (2021, July 12). The Issue. https://childrescuecoalition.org/the-issue/CyberTip Report. (2021, July 28). Report an incident. https://report.cybertip.orgFederal Bureau of Investigation. (2021, July 28). What is sextortion? https://www.fbi.gov/video-repository/newss-what-is-sextortion/viewFix, R. L., Assini-Meytin, L. C., Harris, A. J., & Letourneau, E. J. (2021). Caregivers’ perceptions and responses to a new norm: The missing link in addressing adolescent sexting behaviors in the U.S. Archives of Sexual Behavior: The Official Publication of the International Academy of Sex Research, 50(2), 575. https://doi-org.libproxy.txstate.edu/10.1007/s10508-020-01704-zGassó, A. M., Mueller-Johnson, K., & Montiel, I. (2020). Sexting, online sexual victimization, and psychopathology correlates by sex: Depression, anxiety, and global psychopathology. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(3). https://doi-org.libproxy.txstate.edu/10.3390/ijerph17031018National Center Missing & Exploited Children. (2021, July 12). Safety pledge. Keeps kids safer online. https://safetypledge.org/#pledgeThorn. (2021, July 12). Sextortion. https://www.thorn.org/sextortion/Thorn. (2021, July 28). Sextortion: Summary Findings from a 2017 survey of 2,097 survivors. https://www.thorn.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Sextortion_Wave2Report_121919.pdfVan Ouytsel, J., Punyanunt-Carter, N. M., Walrave, M., & Ponnet, K. (2020). Sexting within young adults’ dating and romantic relationships. Current Opinion in Psychology, 36, 55–59. https://doi-org.libproxy.txstate.edu/10.1016/j.copsyc.2020.04.007
About the Authors
Christian A. Nanry is a veteran and serves his community as a law enforcement official. He holds an undergraduate’s degree from Empire State College, a master’s degree from Seton Hall University, and a Doctorate of Philosophy from Texas State University.
Contributor and Co-author: Heather C. Fisher is the senior advisor for human rights crimes at Thompson Reuters Special Services. In this capacity, Fischer advises on the company strategy to protect human rights and combat crimes of exploitation, including human trafficking.