What would YOU do?

Scenario 1: You are 35 years-old and your celebrity crush befriends you online and asks you for illicit photographs of yourself. (Answer: Report fraudulent person and block from your page.)

What would your CHILD do?

Scenario 2: You are a 12 year-old girl who loves One Direction’s lead singer and someone posing as him messages you online. You converse for one week. He said he likes you, and then asks for a lewd photography of yourself, after which he then harasses you for more photos.

Scenario 3: You are an 11 year-old boy who received a message via your brand new phone from an unknown person posing as a nice 14-year-old girl. Your new, virtual friend poses no major threats, and in fact, encourages safety and privacy between you and them by over sharing about themselves in an effort to entice you to over share as well.

Instances where sexual predators entice teens and young children to send lewd photographs of themselves, sometimes blackmailing them to receive more (known as sextortion) are on the rise. In fact, according to the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, a group that helps law enforcement fight online child pornography, national reports of such crimes rose from 5,300 in 2010 to 7,000 in 2013.

Adding to this quickly growing online crime against children is a transition predators continue to make in enticing even younger, middle school aged children as they’re judgment skills are still early in development. That, coupled with the fact that tweens are naturally curious and are exploring their growing independence at home, or via social networking sites, it can create a cautionary tale.

Sextortion oftentimes begins seemingly innocently enough when our children make virtual friends online. In some cases, the predator poses as a similarly aged person interested in your child, strikes up an online relationship, eventually asks for a lewd photograph of your child and once your child sends it the predator, whether out of fear or sexual curiosity, the predator becomes vicious and makes threats to hurt others, your child, your child’s friends or family if they do not receive more intimate photographs. In other cases, predators set-up social networking accounts pretending to be a celebrity and entice children via online conversations to send lewd photographs only to turn vicious and threatening for more. Regardless of how the predator approaches your children, for children it can be difficult to gauge whether or not an online “friend” is a credible, truthful person. It is also difficult for them to know when they’ve gotten in over their heads and when it’s time to seek their parents or law enforcement’s help before issues get worse. Furthermore, in most sextortion cases children will not report incidents to parents, teachers or authorities due to the fact that they are worried their parents will overreact and take away their mobile devices.

Sextortion cases such as these are growing. While a predator may hone in on one or two victims, others have been reported to sexually extort as many as 80 children from the comfort of their laptop straight to a child’s smart phone via their social networking apps. In a recent news report by NBC, after a recent five-week crackdown, federal authorities reported the capture of 255 suspected child predators, two of which are believed to have sexually extorted dozens of children. [Read: Experts increasingly worried about ‘sextortion’ of minors online.] No longer is there a world where anyone can “disconnect” from technology – most of all our teen and tween aged children. In a world that provides so much access and privacy to our kids, it’s imperative we, as parents, spend time talking with them about how they lead their virtual lives.

As our children grow into their independence there are things we can do to help protect them from online predators, and sometimes, themselves as they are still young and growing. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s Take 25 site provides parents with age appropriate resources to help you talk with your children about online safety in 25 minutes. It must also be mentioned that Take 25 is a resource site for parents too as parents themselves are having to learn quickly about the dangers of online child sex crimes in today’s digital age. Experts also advise parents to invest in computer monitoring software programs and to periodically spot check your child’s phone activities to ensure their safety. Most importantly, create an atmosphere where you openly and regularly discuss online activities with your children.

Education for parents and children help us all become good digital citizens and reduce the dangers associated with Internet crimes, including sexting. For more information and resources, visit SM@RTConnections. Or, follow us on Facebook or Instagram to keep informed.