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‘Sextortion’ labeled as most important and fastest-growing cyberthreat to children

Adolescents who identified as non-heterosexual were more than twice as likely to be the victim of sextortion. This finding is consistent with other forms of online abuse, including cyberbullying and electronic dating violence, which research has shown is more common among those who do not identify as heterosexual.

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“Sextortion” has been labeled as the most important and fastest-growing cyberthreat to children, with more minor victims per offender than all other child sexual exploitation offenses, according to  the United States Department of Justice. 

Sextortion is the “threatened dissemination of explicit, intimate or embarrassing images of a sexual nature without consent. Usually, it is for the purpose of getting more images, sexual acts, money or something else.”

Despite increased public interest in sextortion, there have been no studies to empirically examine this behavior among adolescents. This is why researchers from Florida Atlantic University and the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire conducted a study that explored sextortion prevalence behaviors among 5,568 middle and high school students in the US between the ages of 12 to 17 years.

The study, published in the journal Sexual Abuse, found that 5% of these youth had been the target of sextortion, and 3% admitted that they had done it to others. Males were significantly more likely than females to have participated in sextortion both as a victim and as an offender.

How the Vic Fabe issue highlights that we can be our worst enemies…

The study also found that adolescents who identified as non-heterosexual were more than twice as likely to be the victim of sextortion. This is consistent with other forms of online abuse, including cyberbullying and electronic dating violence, which research has shown is more common among those who do not identify as heterosexual.

The study did not find any difference by race and age, although 15 year olds were generally more likely to be involved compared with other groups.

The study also found that most sextortion experiences occurred within existing relationships (romantic or otherwise). It was rare that the person targeted by someone was not well known to the target.

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Sextortion-related activities varied, and included: being stalked or harassed (9.7% of males and 23.5% of females), being contacted repeatedly online or by phone (42.9% of males and 40.9% of females), and having a fake online profile created about them (11.2% of males and 8.7% of females).

Most notably, 24.8% of males and 26.1% of females who were sextorted said the offender posted the sexual image of them online, while 25.5% of male victims and 29.6% of female victims said the offender sent the sexual image of them to someone else without their permission.

“Threats that were made were ultimately carried out in some way, and some of these instances may indeed be more accurately characterized as ‘revenge porn,’ another behavior involving the unauthorized distribution of explicit images,” said Sameer Hinduja, Ph.D., co-author, a professor in FAU’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice within the College for Design and Social Inquiry, and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center. “Revenge porn is less colloquially known as ‘non-consensual pornography.’ However, the primary difference between revenge porn tends to be public while sextortion is usually private, unless threats are ultimately carried out.”

Not surprisingly, only a few sextortion victims reported the experience to parents or other adult authorities. And among those who reported, more females informed their parents than did males. Also, very few sextortion victims reported it to the site or app where the situation occurred.

The researchers – Hinduja and Justin W. Patchin, Ph.D., who co-authored – advise youth to be cautious when it comes to how much trust they can extend to others. But they also suggested for parents and other adults who work with teens to cultivate them in a healthy dose of skepticism about the sharing of personal (particularly sexual) content to anyone in their circle because – as the research showed – sextortion rarely involves strangers.

“Youth may fall prey to victimization more readily than adults because of the naiveté that stems from a simple lack of experience in the ways of life and love,” Hinduja ended.

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