Online platforms and how kids use them are changing constantly, which means the ways that predatory adults can find, message and potentially harm them is evolving too. So, the FBI and other organizations in Alaska are teaching kids how to stay safe when they’re spending time online.
Chloe Martin, Public Affairs Specialist for the FBI in Anchorage spoke to a class of about 25 middle and high schoolers at Steller Secondary School in Anchorage in November. She asked them who had some kind of social media or was playing video games online. Almost all of them raised their hands. They shouted out the platforms they like – YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat, Twitter, Kik.
Martin and colleagues teach classes throughout Alaska on this topic, often when a school or organization requests it. In this case, student organizers asked the FBI to come talk about online safety.
Martin told the class that the Anchorage FBI office knows adults with ill intent often message with young people online. Their profile can be fake and designed to look like another kid and they may pretend to have shared interests to manipulate a kid into opening up online. And Martin said they can use that new connection to coerce the child into sending a naked photo.
“It’s all business from there,” said Martin to the class. “Because what they’re going to do now is they’re going to say, ‘Great, thanks for sending the photo or video. Now, what I’m going to do is I’m going to, if you don’t keep sending me more photos or videos like this, I’m now going to send the one you sent me, to your friends, to your family, to your parents. I’m going to post it online.’”
That’s a crime that the FBI calls “sextortion” and Martin said it’s on the rise nationally. Criminals get nude photos and use those to try to get more photos or videos, to coerce a child into meeting in person, or to pay them.
Martin said there are a wide range of criminals using this technique to manipulate kids. They may be local and sometimes even know the victim personally or sometimes it’s part of a bigger, international crime ring to extort people for money.
Martin told the class to watch out for someone messaging them on one platform, like a video game chat, asking them to talk on a second platform. They may be looking for a more encrypted way to send messages and photos to cover their tracks.
Martin said if a child is victimized like this, it can be incredibly traumatic and they may not feel like they can tell anyone.
“We’ve seen victims report feeling scared, alone, embarrassed and desperate,” Martin said. “And we’ve even seen many feel like there’s just no way out and this unfortunately, leads to instances of self harm and even suicide.”
Sometimes the offending adult tells the child they’ll get in trouble with the police for making the image which may make them feel even more trapped. But Martin said that’s just not true: the young person is the victim and it’s never too late to ask for help in a situation like this. It also doesn’t make the situation go away to give the person what they’re demanding because they will just demand more.
Brooks Banker, an educator for Standing Together Against Rape, or STAR Alaska, teaches kids in Alaska from kindergarten through high school about body privacy and personal safety. And this year, STAR added an internet safety piece to their body education. Brooks tells kids to never share naked photos online, but he said online spaces can be really positive if kids learn to navigate them safely. He said it can be a way for young people to connect around an identity or topic that they’re really passionate about.
“And that’s a great way for young people, especially in more rural areas, to connect in that way, specifically with LGBTQ young people,” Banker said. “But we still need to be cautious, we still need to be careful.”
He said it’s important for parents and caretakers to know how kids are using online platforms, especially new ones. He said it’s critical to take the time to help kids become comfortable talking with trusted adults about tricky topics and to reassure them that if something does happen, it’s not their fault.
“If they feel like they can’t go to you, because they’re embarrassed about what might have happened, they’re confused about what might happen, if they are just randomly sent a photo, if they feel like you’re gonna shut down their gaming service, you’re going to take it away because of that, they might not feel like they can share it with you,” Banker said.
If you or a child you care for has experienced sextortion, you can reach out to law enforcement and STAR has 24-7 phone support for survivors of sexual assault statewide at (800) 478-8999.