When my son was in middle school, he came home one afternoon with a sheepish look on his face.
“Something’s happened,” he said.
After some prodding, he admitted that there was a sexting scandal in his grade, and inappropriate pictures of a girl had been disseminated via text to many of his classmates. While he himself did not receive the pictures, my son was rattled.
“What do I do if I get pictures like that sent to my phone?” His hazel eyes looked at me, waiting for an answer I never thought I’d have to give my son.
But because he was asking and because I knew he was struggling with the enormity of the situation, I talked to him frankly and honestly about a subject I could barely understand myself.
I never thought I’d be discussing the differences between sexting, revenge porn, and sextortion with my kids. And yet, I found myself having to have an uncomfortable but necessary conversation with my teenage son.
Yes, sextortion is a thing.
And yes, parents need to know the facts because the reality of parenting teens in this day and age means that kids are exploring their sexuality with a phone in their hands, which is far different than when the teens I knew in high school were playing 7 Minutes in Heaven in basement closets.
Thorn, a website founded by Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore in 2013, was created to use technology to help combat online sexual exploitation of children. Their mission includes leveraging technology to help find sex trafficking victims faster and finding ways to aid law enforcement in the prosecution of online sexual predators. And in looking at other sex crimes against children online, it quickly became apparent to the Thorn staff that sextortion was a very real threat to children.
Sextortion is the act of threatening to release a sexual image in order to make another person do something. Perpetrators of sextortion are often current, former, or would-be romantic sexual partners attempting to harass, embarrass, and control their victims. According to Thorn, 60% of sextortion victims know their perpetrator, and 40% of victims met their perpetrator online.
The statistics are staggering, but initially, there was very little information for the staff at Thorn to work with when it came to developing technology strategies to deter sextortion.
According to Julie Cordua, CEO of Thorn, their initial attempts at developing technology to fight sextortion were altered when they realized that the scope of the sextortion issue hadn’t been properly studied.
“In looking for sextortion statistics, the only research that existed were police cases. There was no insights based evidence on sextortion. And, since most victims don’t report sextortion crimes, we realized we needed an awareness campaign to help victims feel comfortable coming forward to report the crime,” Cordua explained.
Cordua says Thorn partnered with Facebook to create an online research study, aimed at gathering information from sextortion victims. “We expected maybe a hundred or so people would respond because sextortion causes such pain in victims,” she says. They were shocked at the results.
Over 1,600 hundred people responded. And more than a third of respondents admitted that they’d never reported their crimes.
“We knew immediately that we needed to get this crime out of the shadows,” says Cordua.
And thus began Thorn’s Stop Sextortion campaign.
Through a series of nonjudgmental website tips and a video narrated by actress Shay Mitchell, Cordua hopes the Thorn campaign will make victims of sextortion realize that they are not alone and also will empower children to help their friends realize that they have their backs when it comes to sextortion.
“Through this campaign, we want kids to be able to say, ‘I did this thing, I messed up, I need help,’ and know that their parents and friends will love them unconditionally. That’s the biggest message,” Cordua stresses.
When asked for tips about opening a dialogue with kids about sextortion, Cordua was frank. “Sit down and talk to your kids about the uncomfortable things. Show them our video. Ask questions. Talk to other parents. Learn about the apps your kids are using because it could save their lives,” she says.
Additionally, Cordua suggests the following five tips, found on Thorn’s website:
1. Keep learning about the apps and technology your kids are using.
Never stop asking questions and familiarize yourself with the apps by playing with them yourself. Knowledge is power.
2. Be there unconditionally.
Kids need to know that if they make a mistake, they won’t get punished.
3. Talk to your kids about online safety.
Ask them these questions as conversation starters: Has anyone sent you a sexual picture or a sext? Has anyone asked or pressured you to send a sexual picture or a sext? Do you think it’s okay to forward sexual or embarrassing images?
4. Spread the word.
Talk to other parents. Let them know what apps your kids are using. And consider bringing the Family Online Safety Institute’s “How to Be a Good Digital Parent” program to your school.
5. Advocate for change.
Understand the laws in your state for sextortion and revenge porn and figure out where they are lacking. Lobby your local lawmakers to write tougher laws and educate them about the problems in your area.
Parenting teens in the smartphone era brings a set of challenges that I often feel ill-prepared to handle. Kids today are forced to navigate the teen years with the added weight of social media, and they have to find ways to teach them social etiquette that we never had to learn ourselves as teenagers.
Thankfully, websites like Thorn help us realize we are never alone.
For more resources on how to talk to your kids about online safety, sextortion, and other online sex crimes, visit www.stopsextortion.com. If you are beings sextorted, get help NOW. Text “THORN” to 741741. You are not alone.