Kathryn Stamoulis, PhD
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, when most Americans have been ordered to stay at home, people are using the Internet to fill multiple roles. To create a semblance of normalcy, many rely on their phones and computers to work, learn, maintain social support, and distract themselves from the horrors of the outside world. While it’s wonderful that technology can help make life more “livable” during this trying time, it’s important that parents remain vigilant of our children as they may be ill-equipped to face the risks of the darker side of online use. In some extreme cases, quarantined youth may be struggling with extortion of a sexual nature, known as “sextortion.”
Sextortion is a crime that occurs when someone threatens to distribute private and sensitive material if a victim doesn’t provide them with personal images of a sexual nature, sexual favors, or money. In the US, the FBI is responsible for investigating cases involving sextortion and, given the current shelter in place quarantine guidelines, they are anticipating an uptick in these schemes. “Anytime you have a lot of kids spending more time online then you’re going to see that opportunity for sexual exploitation to increase,” said FBI Supervisory Special Agent Tim Wolford.
Ashley Reynolds, an educator with the FBI, was a victim of sextortion in her early teen years. She was relentlessly tormented by an online predator who demanded that she send him sexually explicit images of herself. While she blocked him at first, he persisted and desperate for the harassment to stop she ultimately gave in to her tormenter. However, as is typical in such cases, the harassment didn’t stop; it got worse, with the predator threatening to release the photo if she didn’t give him more. Fear of her reputation being ruined—and the thought of disappointing her parents—kept Ashley silent and compliant. With each photograph she gave, the perpetrator demanded more. This cycle went on for months until Ashley’s mother finally found out, and promptly reported the crime to authorities, ultimately leading to the arrest and conviction of her abuser, 26-year-old Lucas Michael Chansler. Aside from Ashley, it was discovered that Chansler had also victimized nearly 350 other girls.
While criminal or serial sextortion is extreme and relatively rare, parents still need to be alert about this and other related types of online sexual coercion and harassment which are more prevalent. Especially now as most kids are home, on their phones constantly, bored, and deprived of social and romantic contact. This, of course, is not meant to imply that all digital sexual communication among teenagers is bad. Flirting and sexting during quarantine can provide some thrills and opportunities for healthy sexual expression. Temple, Strasburger, Zimmerman, and Madigan (2019) conducted a metanalysis on 40 studies on teen sexting and found that “wanted sexting” (or consensual sexting) was not associated with negative outcomes and they concluded it should be viewed as “healthy relating.” The problem, the study found, is when the sexting is “unwanted” or coerced. When the sending and receiving of sexts is unwanted, like in Ashley’s case, it is associated with higher reports of depression, anxiety, and stress.
Further, while “wanted sexting” was not viewed negatively in the study, even sexting that was initially consensual can take a turn for the worse if a person finds that compromising images are being spread to others without their consent. A 15-year-old participant from a 2017 study by Crimes Against Children Research Center University of New Hampshire reported that her harasser “said that if I didn’t send nudes to him he would post pictures he already had online and make sure all my friends and family saw them, then proceeded to take screenshots of people I was friends with on Facebook.” The study found that many youth who experience this form of sextortion feel isolated, and as many as one-third of those victimized don’t reach out to friends or family for help. These feelings of isolation may increase during quarantine as opportunities for social support have been drastically limited. Ms. Reynolds reported the times she felt safest during her experience were at school, and kids in quarantine don’t have that escape right now. Further, there is no respite for these children via sports, clubs, or religious groups. Their whole world is currently online.
Even if children want to confide in their parents, teens may be hesitant to further burden their parents who may be struggling financially, physically, or mentally due to the impact of the pandemic. Pew Research found that over 60% of parents were moderately or severely distressed by worry over their health, finances, and childcare responsibilities during the early quarantine week of March 19-24. If a victimized youth does not have an outlet to disclose their issues, they are left alone to handle the exploitation as well as related depression and anxiety.
With massive stressors related to the coronavirus pandemic, online safety may currently be a low priority for many parents and educators. Therefore, it is important that mental health professionals take up the cause by checking in with young people about online sexual harassment or sextortion and by reminding parents to talk about this risk with their children. With support and intervention, children won’t have to suffer alone, and related negative outcomes will likely be reduced.
Temple, J., Strasburger, V, Zimmerman, H. & Madigan, S. (2019). Sexting in youth: cause for concern? The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, 8, 520 – 521. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2017.08.01
Wolak, J & Finklehor, D. (2017). Sextortion: Findings from a study of 1,631 victims. Crimes against children. Durham, NH: Research Center University of New Hampshire.