Two local teens, Riley K. Basford, 15, of Potsdam, and Shylynn M. Dixon, 18, of Lisbon, were reportedly victims of cyber sextortion earlier this year.
Riley, a Potsdam Central School sophomore, died March 30 after a brief back-and-forth with a Facebook user threatening to extort $3,500 from him. Shylynn, an junior at Heuvelton Central School, died March 3 after a Facebook user issued similar threats over the last year and a half.
On Wednesday, Brooke McAllister, community educator and campus advocate for St. Lawrence Valley Renewal House, was the speaker for the Massena Community Café. She discussed sexting, sextortion and preventative measures to keep children from becoming victims.
Sexting is when individuals send sexually explicit messages, photos or videos via cell phone or some form of instant messenger. Ms. McAllister said in some cases, it might be students at a junior high or high school who know each other or might be dating.
Those privately sent photos and videos can easily be shared with others.
“There’s pressure to send these things, especially for younger girls, and also for young boys, too. One of the problems with sexting — and there are many — is that often times students think what they’re sending is going to stay private, especially when they’re sending to a partner or someone they know,” she said.
But, she said, more often than not, they are shared with others.
“Once you send a digital image, it’s out there in the world,” she said. “What they’re sending rarely stays private.”
Once the photos or videos are out there, she said, they can be used as leverage in abusive relationships — “If you don’t send more images, I’m going to send them to your family.”
“They don’t think that their partner is going to betray them. Unfortunately, that is part of the conversation,” Ms. McAllister said. “A lot of people don’t want to acknowledge this is happening. The reality is, this is happening everywhere on the local level, as we’re all aware of now. This is not a thing that does not happen here. It’s happening at our schools. It’s everywhere.”
More often than not, Ms. McAllister said, sexting occurs because someone “feels pressured.”
“Not only is it a violation of trust and breaking the law, a lot of psychological consequences come with sexting. There’s potentially irrevocable damage that comes with the sexting. It doesn’t stop when the school day end,” Ms. McAllister said.
Sexting can also become a potential crime. Any nude photos or videos of a person under age 18 could be considered child pornography, which is illegal to own and distribute. She said it’s a felony even if the photos or videos are consensual, and along with the charge comes the potential of having the sex offender label attached to the person’s name.
During her presentation, she also discussed sextortion, which she said is a threat to expose sexual images to make a person do something. Online perpetrators may gain a person’s trust by pretending they’re someone they’re not.
“They lurk in chat rooms and record young people who post or live-stream sexually explicit image or videos of themselves,” Ms. McAllister said.
They might also hack into electronic devices using malware and gain access to files, as well as control of the webcam and microphone without the person knowing it.
She said sextortion typically comes in the form of a friend request on one of the platforms used by the teen. It might be a gaming platform, image board site, a popular app like Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram or Facebook, or lesser known apps like After School, Ask.fm, Bigo Live or Blendr. On some apps, individuals can join and post anonymously and, on one of them, there’s no age restriction, with teens often having conversations with adults.
“It comes from different platforms. It’s not just the app. They strike up a close friendship through online messages or texts,” she said, and that escalates into them asking for nude pictures or video of the person.
A “red flag” should come up if the person requests the child’s other social media platforms, where they can get more personal information.
“Sixty percent feel threatened within two weeks of initial contact. They’re targeting them by what they see on social media,” Ms. McAllister said.
She offered some preventative measures that could be discussed with children, such as being selective about what was shared online.
“If your social media accounts are open to everyone, a predator may be able to figure out a lot of information about you,” she said.
Other measures are to block or ignore messages from strangers; be aware that people can pretend to be anything or anyone online; be suspicious if a person is met on one game or app and they ask to start talking to them on a different platform; and be “in the know” by realizing any content created online can be made public.
“Be willing to ask for help. If you are getting messages or requests online that don’t seem right, block the sender, report the behavior to the site administrator or an adult,” Ms. McAllister said.
She said the conversations should continue with children.
“This is just a starting point,” she said. “I’m hoping we all leave here a little bit more informed, a little bit more empowered to have these tough conversations and recognize that there’s a lot of work to be done.”