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'Sextortion': The terrifying social media scourge that should strike fear into parents of every Queensland teen

Opinion

When you sit down to a family dinner this weekend, can you be sure that your teenage or young adult children aren’t being lured, and captured, by an insidious and growing social media scourge. Columnist and author Madonna King’s new book reveals the shocking consequences

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This might be the most important column I could write for any parents with a teen on social media.

Please stop and read it.

An epidemic is unfolding in our homes and our schools – in Brisbane and in other capital cities, and in regional and rural towns across the country.

We keep hearing the word ‘sextortion’, but it is so much more than a word. For many of our children, it has become a sentence: trapped by either a scammer or an online pedophile who tricks them, and then bribes them.

My investigation into this follows months and months of work, principally with the help of retired detective police inspector – and new Victims Commissioner – Jon Rouse. But it also includes parents who have lost their children, the AFP, the e-Safety commissioner, schools, the FBI and Interpol.

Sextortion might be just as life-changing for this generation of young adults as COVID.

This is how it works – and the modus operandi is completely different depending on whether boys or girls are being targeted.

In the case of girls, a pedophile based anywhere in the world – but acting as a female peer – will send a friendship request, even suggesting they might have joint friends or have met at a netball match or rowing regatta.

They become online friends, and the pedophile quickly starts talking about sex. It’s normal for girls to wonder about it, especially if they haven’t yet experienced it. The online extorter, still masquerading as a friend, might send a picture of breasts, claiming they are her own and wondering if they are uneven, or odd, or too big or too small – and asking their friend to do the same.

And that’s the point at which our daughters will become hostage to an online captor who then admits to making up a persona, and who demands more and more intimate imagery – under threat that the original online grab will be sent to her parents, school principal, teachers, and the boys’ school down the road.

Investigating police have been brought to tears by what follows, as girls undress and perform all sorts of acts demanded by a serial pedophile – sometimes while their family is along the corridor having dinner.

For years we’ve talked about the lure of social media for girls, and the risks that brings. But boys are now increasingly the focus of sextorters who are not serial pedophiles but scammers based in call centres in Nigeria or other places around the globe. In some cases, they are part of organised crime gangs.

It’s an uneven match, and unfolds in a similar way to girls. Let’s say your son is 14 or 17 or 21. A pretty avatar of a girl pops up on his laptop, suggesting they known each other, or that she would like to get to know him better.

Within minutes in some cases, she has sent a compromising picture and asks our sons to do the same. And, believing they are speaking to the girl they might end up going out with, or even asking to the school formal, they oblige.

BANG. The online avatar then admits they are not anyone our sons know and demands money under threat of exposing the image or video in his possession. If boys can find $50, the online scammer knows they have access to funds and will demand more.

One teen handed over $50,000. And suicides are now being reported both in Australia and overseas.

Complaints to the eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant have tripled, and she says nine in 10 of those are now ‘distressed’ young men.

Yet, fewer than one in four are believed to report this insidious crime that leaves our teens humiliated. Many find it easier to pay their predator with intimate imagery (in the case of girls) or money (in the case of boys).

Jon Rouse is regarded as a global leader in tracking down online sex abusers. He says 70 percent of what investigators are now seeing is self-generated – children and teens uploading photos or videos of themselves, either voluntarily or being coerced.

“If you’ve seen what I’ve seen, you would not allow your child to take their phone into their bedroom,’’ Rouse says.

Former police officer and cyber safety expert Susan McLean says: “It’s not a matter of if, it’s when your children will be contacted by a pedophile online’’.

And Michelle DeLaune, the president and CEO of the US National Centre for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) told me that the uploaded images will stay online for years – perhaps even decades – after the abuse.

Only three percent of parents believe that the ‘grooming’ of their child is a concern. Perhaps that’s because, as parents, we don’t quite understand the reach of social media or how it works.

But Bruce and Denise Morcombe – who have devoted their lives to keeping children safe after the murder of their son Daniel – found their own grandson was approached on popular gaming platform Roblox.

They were fortunate enough that he spoke up – and they were able to quickly stop it. But would our own children walk out of their bedroom, as 12 or 16 or 20, and say they had been duped and were now being bribed?

Many, many, many are not. Sextortion is no longer a word in headlines about others anymore.

Madonna King’s new book Saving Our Kids, which charts the inside story of Taskforce Argos and Jon Rouse, and their mission to protect children, was released last night (Wednesday), as part of National Child Protection Week.

 

 

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