MICKI GAMEZ

Sextortion is trapping our teens but one major company is working to stop it

Apr 24, 2024, 2:32 PM | Updated: 2:41 pm

Photo: Sextortion is a growing trend but Meta is taking steps to stop it....

Sextortion is a growing trend but Meta is taking steps to stop it. (File photo: Paul Sakuma, AP)

(File photo: Paul Sakuma, AP)

Chances are a young boy is on his cell phone chatting on Instagram with someone he just met. He thinks the other person is a teen and attends a neighboring school. Before he knows it, the conversation immediately changes as his inbox is now flooded with nude pics and the person sending them is requesting he do the same. Once he sends a compromising photo of himself,  the climate of the conversation changes — this is the beginning of sextortion.

Sextortion is a recent online phenomenon that is considered image-based sexual abuse and Psychology Today calls it a worldwide crisis.

The online site says men are more susceptible because they are more open to online dating.

“They, (kids) all have phones. We’re all online. We’re all gaming, right? We have chat features in our games, as well. So all of the kids and teenagers are all exposed to this threat,” said Seattle Police Lieutenant Ben Morrison, Commander for the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) unit told KIRO Newsradio.

Since the pandemic, it has become easier for kids to connect with someone they think might be another teen online.

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“Predators online, who are very good at their craft, very good at reaching out to kids, finding kids manipulating kids using fear, guilt, shame, to get what they want. Which is partial or nude photos of our children, of our teenagers, so they can continue to manipulate them for that material. This is child sexual abuse online,” Morrison said. “And this is just simple, where someone reaches out. They text and sound just like that teenager appears, right? If it’s a 13-year-old online, it sounds like all their friends are online.”

Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram wants to help in the fight against sextortion. The company recently added more guardrails for teen accounts.

Photo: Meta is taking steps to prevent sextortion.

Meta is taking steps to prevent sextortion. (Image courtesy of Micki Gamez, KIRO Newsradio)

“So you know, we’re always working to improve our tools around important topics like this. I am a mother of four, two of my children are teenagers. And so this is the thing that we think about a lot in our house. And we have to talk about it with our kids as well. So yes, we do have new tools that we’ve announced to help prevent this sort of thing from happening,” Meta spokesperson Lori Moylan shared with me last week.

The first concerns the images sent or received as a teen.

“If you’re using Instagram DM, or you have a Facebook account, and you’re using Messenger, obviously, this is a place where you can send or receive nude images,” Moylan said. “Obviously, that is not what we want teens to be doing on our platforms. And so the tools that we’re introducing will automatically blur those images.”

Image: Meta is taking steps to prevent sextortion.

Meta is taking steps to prevent sextortion. (Image courtesy of Micki Gamez, KIRO Newsradio)

Here’s how it works: When a user sends a pic containing nudity, Meta will introduce friction.

Friction requires the user to jump through hoops before a possible sexually explicit photo can be seen, in hopes that a teen won’t open it.

“So for teenagers, they’ll automatically be opted into this,” Moylan explained. “Obviously, they can also report those images to us so that we know that these images are happening. And we’ll send them safety tools like the take it down tool, which will let us sort of take power over our own.”

The second thing Meta has implemented is improving signals around accounts that may be engaging in sextortion-related activities.

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“So obviously, this is a thing we’ve been working to improve for a long time. And just in the second half of last year, we took down 21,000 groups and 37 different networks that people that we thought were engaged in some form of exploitation on the platform, of which sextortion could be one,” Moylan said.

It means that if Meta suspects an account is engaging in suspicious activity, the company will limit how they can interact with people online especially accounts that aren’t friends.

“If you were to try to message a teen that you are not connected, you would not be able to get the message button,” she said.

This means if a flagged user tries to message a teen, Meta won’t allow it.

Seattle police said it’s critical that parents become more involved in their teen’s internet use and implement stricter privacy settings because not all platforms are alike.

If your child is the victim of a sex scam — do not send money, save the online interaction and report it immediately to the FBI.

You can read more of Micki Gamez’s stories here. Follow Micki on X, formerly known as Twitter, or email her here. 

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Sextortion is trapping our teens but one major company is working to stop it