Reports involving online sexual extortion of teen boys reached “shocking” levels during the first six months of this year, according to a report released Monday by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF).
The organization, a U.K. charity focused on making the internet a safer place for kids by removing global online child sexual abuse imagery, revealed that it received more reports of “sextortion” during the first six months of 2023 than all of 2022.
Sextortion occurs when sexually explicit images or videos are exchanged online, and the victim is subsequently blackmailed with threats to share the content with friends and family or, more widely, on the internet.
During the first half of 2023, the report noted, the IWF investigated 191 sextortion complaints, compared to only 30 in all of 2022. Of the 191 complaints, analysts confirmed 75 and moved to have the objectionable material blocked or removed from the internet. That’s a 252% increase over 2022, when action was taken on 21 companies.
“It is shocking to see that more children are being cynically targeted in this way by manipulative abusers online,” IWF CEO Susie Hargreaves said in a statement.
“[T]his data is deeply disturbing, showing a significant rise in the appalling and cynical way criminals seek to make money from abuse and coercion, with no thought for the life-long harm it causes these children and young people,” added Ian Critchley, the U.K.’s National Police Chief’s Council lead for Child Protection and Abuse Investigations.
The numbers in the IWF may shock some folks, but it’s important to put them into perspective. Child sexual abuse material is a major problem, but more reports at the IWF don’t necessarily indicate an equal and proportionate rise in abuse, argued Paul Bischoff, a privacy advocate at Comparitech, a reviews, advice, and information website for consumer security products.
“The increase could be caused by more victims turning to the IWF as it becomes more popular and reputable,” he told TechNewsWorld.
Teenage Boys Targeted
Victims who contact the IWF are scared and desperate to stop their images from being shared online, noted one of the organization’s analysts who goes by the name Zara to protect their privacy. “If they report the imagery to us directly, we can hash and block the criminal image,” Zara said in a statement.
A hash is a string of text and numbers generated from the binary data of a picture that acts as a digital fingerprint that can be shared with online platforms so they can block the spread of the material.
The IWF report also found that older teenagers (14-17 years old) are most at risk, with boys targeted by abusers most often. At least 6% of the content was classified as Category A, it added, which is the most severe and can include instances of penetration.
“There are a lot of reasons that boys, particularly teen boys, are susceptible to sextortion,” observed Daniel Castro, director of the Center for Data Innovation, a think tank studying the intersection of data, technology, and public policy in Washington, D.C.
“Some of this is related to the teenage brain — teen boys are likely to be impulsive, misread social cues, and engage in risky behavior,” he told TechNewsWorld. “Some of this is related to inexperience, especially with sexuality and relationships.”
“Imagine a teen boy who receives a message from a peer who expresses interest in them,” he explained. “They trade photos and videos, with the teen boy not realizing that he is really being targeted by bullies, scammers, or someone else. Now the other party is demanding money or something else, such as more photos and videos, in exchange for not publicizing these private messages and media.”
“Sadly, this scenario has happened too many times,” he said. “And even worse, some of these boys have panicked and committed suicide.”
New Playground for Predators
Chris Hauk, a consumer privacy champion at Pixel Privacy, a consumer security and privacy guide publisher, added that young boys are heavy internet users, making them attractive targets for predators.
“While 20 or 30 years ago, predators would hang out at parks and playgrounds to entice youngsters, they now frequent different types of playgrounds, including social networks, online forums and chat rooms, and online gaming arenas,” he told TechNewsWorld.
“Crimes against children have increased in the past few years, as there was a huge increase in people staying home and getting online more, especially children,” he added. “Kids are gaming online, using chat rooms and social networks to stay in touch with friends, meaning they are increasingly attractive targets for predators.”
The year-over-year growth in child sexual abuse material removed from social networks indicates the extent of the problem. For example, Facebook flagged 73.3 million pieces of “child nudity and sexual exploitation” content from January through September 2022, compared to 77.5 million for all of 2021.
It should be noted, too, that Facebook is only reporting content detected and removed by Facebook. The actual amount of child sexual abuse material (CSAM) content circulating online is likely much higher.
“CSAM is a rising problem, and it is difficult for tech firms like Apple to protect users against it without violating their privacy,” Hauk said.
“Apple recently pulled back on its CSAM detection plans,” he continued, “due to concerns raised by privacy advocates, customers, and even Apple employees.”
“Parents and policymakers are right to be concerned about these horrible crimes,” added Jennifer Huddleston, a technology policy research fellow at the Cato Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank, “but most of the proposed policy solutions not only would likely fail to meaningfully improve the situation but could also make it even more difficult to go after the bad actors engaged in such malicious acts.”
Importance of Communication
Huddleston told TechNewsWorld that there are a variety of tools available both on platforms and as separate services to help parents control who can contact their teen or see the content they share.
“Parents or other trusted adults in a teenager’s life should have conversations with them about what to do if they find themselves in a problematic situation online,” she advised. “There are many benefits of our digital age, but young people also need to be aware of potential risks and how to respond or report such inappropriate conduct.”
“Additionally,” she continued, “the focus of policy in this area should be ensuring law enforcement has the tools to go after the bad actors rather than putting up barriers to teenagers using the internet in beneficial ways.”
If a child is being threatened with sextortion, they should immediately stop communication with the perpetrator and not share any more personal information or explicit content, added Yaron Litwin, CMO of Canopy, a maker of software and tools to monitor children’s devices and online activity.
“It’s crucial to inform a trusted adult, like a parent or teacher, and report the incident to law enforcement,” he told TechNewsWorld. “Evidence should be preserved, and the child should not feel ashamed or guilty, as they are the victim in this situation.”