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'We wish we could've reached that kid earlier,' says online educator about boy's suicide after apparent sextortion

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Warning: This article includes references to suicide. Reader discretion advised.

The chat may seem innocuous at first. The victims, often young men or boys, start communicating with someone posing as a young girl, typically on the popular social media platforms Instagram and Snapchat.

But with sextortion, which occurs when people are blackmailed for money or sexual favours, "sextorters" convince them to share a sexual photo or video. The interactions get more dangerous for youth when they end up sending more sexual content or expose themselves over a livestream, which may be recorded without their knowledge. Then the sextorter makes demands, often money from males and sexual photos and videos from girls, and threatens to leak the intimate content, according to Cybertip.ca.

Following the suicide of a 12-year-old boy in B.C. who was believed to be a sextortion victim, Paul Davis, a social media and online safety educator, said he wishes the victim could’ve gotten proper education about the issue to prevent it.

"We wish we could’ve reached that kid earlier," said Davis, who has worked for 33 years in the information technology and cybersecurity field, in a phone interview with CTVNews.ca. He speaks at schools and to police and corporations about sextortion and other online safety issues.

"My heart grieves for that family. … I wish there was proper education where that boy would’ve heard we don't take pictures, because remember, we can't fault them for what they're going through. These kids are going through sexual acceptance … but sexual acceptance online is not the way to go.”

The educator, based in Vaughan, Ont., said the number of cases of sextortion has grown since the pandemic, when more youth were at home and spending more time online.

"If you have to look at how many kids are being sextorted, it's astounding and it's very sad," said Davis.

In the wake of the B.C. tragedy, Prince George RCMP are urging parents and caregivers to have open and honest conversations with youth about the dangers of sextortion.

Police said they are continuing to investigate the death of the boy, who was found with a self-inflicted gunshot wound at a residence on Oct. 12. Police said they believe the boy killed himself because he was a victim of sextortion.

"We are calling for parents and caregivers to be honest with their youth about the dangers of online activity, especially if they are engaging in chats with people they don’t know in real life," said Cpl. Jennifer Cooper, spokesperson for the Prince George RCMP, in a press release on Monday. "While not every case of online sextortion will end in tragedy, the consequences of this kind of activity can follow a youth for their entire life, which needs to be something we talk about openly with our kids."

The number of sextortion cases nationally was not immediately known. However, Cybertip.ca, Canada's national tip agency for reporting the online sexual exploitation of children, says it receives an average of 50 sextortion reports per week. Sextortion victims were overwhelmingly male, aged 12 to 19 years old, and most incidents occurred on Instagram or Snapchat, the group said.

From Sept. 1, 2022, to Aug. 31, 2023, Cybertip.ca received more than 2,300 sextortion reports.

Extortion incidents are growing every year in Prince George, with 62 reports so far this year compared with 56 in 2022, according to the Mounties.

YOUTH URGED NOT TO SHARE INTIMATE CONTENT ONLINE

It's critical for victims to seek help and for parents to have a relationship with their children so they're not afraid to speak to them about this problem, said Davis, the online safety educator. He said mostly mothers reach out to him to get help for their sons, and he has helped 28 families so far this year.

“We need more communication with our kids about the importance of establishing a relationship with someone that they can go to say, ‘I made a choice and now I need help.’ … I’m just glad that these boys have the relationship with their moms to pick up the phone and ask for help,” Davis said. “One of the key messages I leave parents is the relationship you have with your child is paramount. Children must not be afraid to approach their parents and guardians if they encounter any situation. And the reason some kids have tragically taken their lives is perhaps they were afraid of how their parents may have responded to the matter.”

To help put a stop to the incidents, he said, educating youth is key – particularly advising them not to take intimate photos of themselves and share them online because "the internet never forgets." “You want to prevent sextortion? You don’t take a picture of your body,” he said. “If you understand how technology works, you don’t take pictures and transmit them. There’s no such thing as doing it safely. There’s no such thing as 'no one will know.' Yes, once it’s out there that picture is in the hands of someone who can misuse it against you.”

However, he notes another form of extortion is when perpetrators use artificial intelligence rather than real pictures to sextort victims.

“The other thing to know is that these sextortionists are criminal organizations, they reside around the world and we have very little legal jurisdiction in trying to bring these people to justice,” he added.

Carol Todd of Port Coquitlam, B.C., says she understands the heartbreak and pain the loved ones of sextortion victims are going through. Her teenage daughter, Amanda, had died by suicide after years of bullying and cyberstalking. After Amanda's death in 2012, Carol created Amanda's Legacy, a non-profit society that spreads awareness about bullying, cyberbullying, online safety, exploitation and sextortion.

A man from the Netherlands was convicted and sentenced to 13 years in jail for harassment, extortion and possessing child pornography in the high-profile sextortion case in 2022.

"Everyone needs to work together as a community to increase the awareness and learning," Todd said in an email to CTVNews.ca. "Many parents and caregivers do not know or even understand what sextortion or exploitation is. ... Community and school presentations can create more knowledge and understanding to parents/caregivers in how to begin the conversation at home."

She said the conversations about online safety including sextortion should begin early.

"The kids need to know this is for the safety of them and not give the eye-roll," she said. "Many times I have been asked ‘At what age should we begin these talks at home?’ There are no age limits when it comes to safety in the digital world."

The Mounties urge victims to reach out for help and report sextortion incidents to police, NeedHelpNow.ca and Cybertip.ca. They also advise victims not to give in to the sextortionists' demands, stop all communication immediately and deactivate the accounts used to communicate with the perpetrators.

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