How can parents protect their children from sextortion?

<span>The NCA says cease all contact with the blackmailer, block the accounts they have used, but retain messages as evidence, as well as any images sent.</span><span>Photograph: vitapix/Getty</span>
The NCA says cease all contact with the blackmailer, block the accounts they have used, but retain messages as evidence, as well as any images sent.Photograph: vitapix/Getty

“I’m naked on cam now I’ll call you. Answer the call don’t be shy.”

The teenage boy did as he was told by the girl he had been chatting with over social media. The next message was chilling: “If you don’t want to get into trouble, you better listen. I’ve enough to destroy you.”

This is blackmail in real time, as seen through messages from teenage victims of “sextortion”, who have been lured into sharing intimate images, then stung – in many cases, by criminal gangs.

“Would you like me to show your nude video to all your friends? All these followers?” the blackmailer demands. “Tell me the amount you can pay now or I will start posting and ruin your life.”

Experts say the consequences can be devastating for the young people and families targeted. In some cases, it can be tragic – as it was for the family of 16-year-old Dinal De Alwis, who killed himself after being extorted.

This week, the National Crime Agency (NCA) sent an alert to teachers, warning that sextortion was on the rise.

How big is the problem?

The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), a child abuse charity, said in 2023 it had 176 confirmed reports of extortion using children’s sexual images, compared with 21 the year before.

Experts say the number is now much higher, with many cases not formally recorded. The IWF says it is now dealing with reports on a daily basis. Reflecting the alarming rise in numbers over the past 12 to 18 months, the NSPCC child protection charity says organised gangs have now become involved “at scale”.

Rani Govender, the NSPCC’s senior policy officer for child safety online, said: “We know generally that the Covid-19 pandemic made children much more vulnerable to harm and abuse online. But the evidence seems to indicate that organised crime is increasingly involved in order to target children. And that’s why we are seeing this increase.”

What does sextortion look like?

According to the IWF: “The offender initiates the conversation on a popular social media app, pretending to be a young woman, their profile picture is of an attractive girl.” They soon begin talking about sex and offering to share images.

Will Gardner, the chief executive of the charity Childnet, said that was the way in to trying to persuade the victim to hand over sensitive images of their own. “Then they will be told: you need to pay otherwise I’m going to circulate that to your friends, family or community.”

Who is most at risk?

Any social media app or platform teenagers use has the potential to be a tool for grooming, with 16- to 17-year-old boys particularly being targeted, according to the IWF. “If they have a device they are at risk,” said Tamsin McNally, who manages the IWF’s hotline.

Sextortion bears the hallmarks of organised crime, McNally said, with similar patterns of behaviour and apparently similar scripts. Once they have fooled a victim into sending an intimate photo, the attackers turn nasty very sharply, says McNally.

According to the NCA, sextortion is being committed by gangs based overseas, typically in west African countries and in south-east Asia.

How can parents help their child avoid sextortion?

The advice is simple: talk to your children about what they are doing online.

“If you’re talking regularly to your child, you can know more about what their pattern is when they go online and what they tend to do. And the more you understand those patterns, the easier it might be to spot when there’s real changes,” said Govender.

“Because of what we know generally about online abuse, when children are experiencing it, they might show a change in their usual pattern in terms of going online – they might feel the need to be online constantly, if they’re feeling pressure, or they might be really worried to go online and see particular notifications.”

What signs should parents look out for?

Dr Linda Blair, a clinical psychologist who specialises in working with adolescents and their families, says sextortion is an extreme form of bullying.

“If a child is being harassed, bullied or otherwise made to feel bad about themselves, they tend to withdraw socially. Other signs to look out for are avoidance of eye contact, lack of enthusiasm or positivity no matter what you suggest, and especially changes in their sleep patterns – nightmares, waking often at night, finding it difficult to fall asleep.”

What should parents do if their child is a victim?

The NCA recommends against paying, because there is no guarantee it will end there. Instead, parents and carers should report it to the NCA’s Ceop safety centre, and make sure their child is well supported. “The message we want to get out to children is that it’s never too late to tell someone. It can seem like you’ve gone too far but you haven’t – there are people who can help,” said Gardner.

The NCA also says to cease all contact with the blackmailer and block the accounts they have used, but to retain or copy their messages as evidence, as well as any images sent.

If a child’s images are posted online, parents should use the IWF and NSPCC’s ReportRemove tool and the US-based Take It Down, which require the images to be uploaded – another reason to retain them.

What do the blackmailers want?

The NSPCC says that while girls are more often told to send further explicit images, boys are most often asked for money.

One 17-year-old boy told Childline: “I met a girl on [an app] who said she was into the same games as me. We’d been chatting for ages, and I sent her some nude pictures and she said she’d send some back. Instead, she’s saying I have to send her hundreds of pounds in gaming gift cards or she’ll share my pictures everywhere. I knew to block her but I’m worried she’ll still share them.”

Will the blackmailers carry out their threat?

In many cases, the extortionists don’t follow through if their targets refuse to cooperate. But Govender said the distress won’t go away for the young person: “The practical consequences are almost less of a concern than the fact that they know these images of themselves are out there, in the hands of someone who clearly can’t be trusted.”

One boy told Childline: “I get so scared every time I receive a notification on my phone because I worry this will be the day my nudes get posted.”