By The Associated Press

Eau Claire Leader-Telegram. April 30, 2024.

Editorial: Sextortion rise is concerning; parents need to be aware

The term “sextortion” may not be familiar to people, but it should be. It’s a growing problem, according to the Wisconsin Department of Justice.

The department calls sextortion “a form of child sexual exploitation where children are threatened or blackmailed, most often with the possibility of sharing with the public a nude or sexual image of them, by a person who demands additional sexual content, sexual activity, or money from the child.”

This year alone has seen 45 tips about such cases. There were 176 tips last year, according to the state. The increasing number of cases isn’t likely to slow down in the immediate future.

The issue is, in part, that many of the suspects are located in foreign countries. The state lists Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire and the Philippines as hosting a majority of them. That’s common in scams of all types, since being abroad means it’s far less likely American authorities will be able to put the scammers on trial.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says it is seeing a sharp rise in the number of cases in which the offender isn’t after additional sexual materials, but instead turns the situation into financial blackmail. Teen boys are the most common targets for that.

The best protection against this is information. That means parents and their kids need to have some potentially uncomfortable discussions. They’re important, though, because without knowing how to handle a situation like this children are left to figure things out for themselves.

Ideally, the solution they arrive at would be to go to their parents or the authorities. That’s a tough decision to make. The child is most likely embarrassed to be in such a position in the first place, and no one enjoys sharing humiliating news.

If the prior discussions have taken place, the child at least knows the door is open for them to get help. If they’re being blackmailed with the potential release of a sexually explicit photo then, yes, they made a considerable mistake. Remember, though, that the threat isn’t itself proof anything was done. The FBI’s website on sextortion notes that “in some cases, the first contact from the criminal will be a threat.” There’s no photo, but the contact claims there is.

Regardless of which is true, the basic question parents need to keep in mind is the same. Which would you prefer, that the child report it or compound the mistake by giving in to the blackmailer’s demands? That leads to another point the FBI makes: “the offender often releases the victim’s sexually explicit material regardless of whether or not they receive payment.”

It’s always important to have a general idea of what your children are doing online. You can’t assume that any given app or system is safe, either. Cases like the ones cited by authorities have taken place across a wide range of apps, messaging platforms and even games.

Tempting as it is to fall back on the assumption that “my child would never do something like that,” that’s a mistake. Parents almost never know their kids as well as they think they do. Children have their own lives away from parents’ eyes and they don’t share everything that happens. We’d be willing to bet virtually all of the parents involved in the 176 cases Wisconsin investigated last year were blindsided by events.

Saying it’s unfortunate that an editorial like this needs to be written is an understatement of some magnitude. This is the world we live in, though, and there’s a real need for parents and other caregivers to be aware of this threat.