Capitalizing on shame

Capitalizing on shame

The creepy phenomenon dubbed sextortion has been getting more and more attention from both media and law enforcement lately. Sextortion, as the name indicates, is a form of extortion having to do with sex: A criminal obtains material of a sexual nature — photos, videos, even chats — and blackmails the victim, threatening to share the material if the victim doesn’t pay up. In some cases, the predator also demands more compromising footage, making this situation a vicious cycle for the victim.

The extortionists sometimes obtain private photos by hacking poorly secured accounts or infecting a target device with malware, and sometimes they simply lure their victim into sending compromising photos, videos, or webcam feeds.

Unfortunately, these nefarious actions are particularly relevant to kids’ online security. Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at Brookings University, studied 78 criminal cases to find out that a whopping 78% of 3,000 victims were minor. It’s no wonder, to be honest: kids rarely use two-factor authentication, tend to make up weaker passwords and are in general insufficiently aware of cybersecurity. Moreover, teens frequently practice sexting — exchanging intimate messages. According to The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, 20% of teens have shared nude photos. Almost 40% write sexually explicit messages. And 15% of teens who have shared their nude pictures also admitted to having shared them with people they did not know in real life and met only online.

It’s not hard to understand why a child being victimized for his or her own intimate images or words would avoid reporting the sextortion to his or her parents. Parental punishment and lack of understanding are powerful disincentives. And the shame and helplessness are particularly traumatic for vulnerable teens, some of whom have even been driven to suicide by sextortion.

Parents need to be aware of this phenomenon and remain on alert both for their own and their kids’ security. To avoid sextortion, stick to some basic rules of online safety:

  1. Be cautious online and use a robust, up-to-date antivirus.
  1. Never take, share, or store nude photos on your devices or cloud services. Someone can obtain access to your photos by hacking your account (remember the case of nude celebrity photos in 2015?) or the account of someone you shared a private photo with. It is much safer if such pictures don’t exist in the first place.
  1. Use two-factor authorization and a strong password. They are as essential for your protection as the antivirus guarding your digital property.
  1. Avoid talking to strangers via social networks and messaging apps. Don’t reveal your true identity in correspondence with your virtual acquaintances on online forums or in-game chats. Track who your kid is speaking to over these channels.
  1. Have an open discussion about sextortion and these rules. Starting a conversation about such an intimate topic can be awkward, and the entire thing may be uncomfortable for all involved, but a teen needs to be aware of potential consequences of carelessness.