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The Growing Ways Predators Target Teens on Social Media
May 22, 2024

CW: brief mention of suicide and other violent topics.


“Murray was clever and street-smart, says his dad, not glued to his phone, and, if anything, slightly dismissive of social media. An open family, they had discussed the dangers of sharing photos and messaging strangers “and yet he still fell for it. It can happen to any child.”” This quote is from an article in The Guardian, which tells the story of a 16-year-old victim of sextortion. 

As the article says, “‘It is a crime that agencies across the UK, US and Australia confirm is rising sharply with teenage boys and young adult males typically the victims of loosely organised cyber-criminal gangs often based in west Africa or south-east Asia. The extortion formula is simple, with scripts and detailed “how-to” guides shared online, and often brutally effective.” The criminals duped Murray into believing he was talking to a young girl, encouraged him to send sensitive imagery, and when he did, they began extorting him, until he died by suicide.

Murray had shown no signs of mental health struggles, didn’t spend much time on social media, and his family was at home with him. Cases like these show how critical it is to inform kids about how they might be targeted, how dangerous it is to share imagery even with people they trust and to emphasize how important it is to not be ashamed to seek help if something goes wrong.

These cases also show that far more needs to be done on and by social media platforms to protect children and youth.

Sexual imagery is not the only kind of sensitive images predators are manipulating kids into sending either.

A Washington Post article details cases where teens have been coerced into creating and sending or even live-streaming disturbing and violent imagery, from self-harm to animal abuses. According to the article, in these cases, the perpetrators aren’t seeking money; they’re seeking instead power, notoriety or fame within communities that glorify violence and cruelty. Social media platforms such as Telegram and Discord say they’re removing thousands of accounts each month or millions of pieces of harmful content, using AI to help identify predatory behavior and abusive content, but it’s proving insufficient. Perpetrators simply re-group and start new accounts. A Discord spokesman said that sophisticated predators may have as many as 50 or 100 accounts to avoid getting caught. 

And yet, rather than trying to avoid these predators, some parents are actively courting them. A New York Times article shows how there are kids’ social media accounts that are managed by parents who knowingly share content of their children to audiences that include male followers who openly fantasize about their kids. They might start these accounts to boost their child’s modeling career or curry favor from clothing brands, and male followers will start demanding increasingly racy content. There are extreme cases where parents have been arrested for exploitation, and there are consequences for their kids, ranging from damaging impacts on their self-esteem, feeling this is the only life path available to them, to blackmail leading to their accounts being reported to school authorities and the child having to face investigation at school.

Most parents are probably aware by now that sexual predators exist online and that they might target their children, but there are so many pressures for kids to be online and have smartphones. It’s not only about staying connected to friends, sometimes it’s even become essential for their performance in school. The very real pressure to get a smartphone can easily overwhelm the somewhat more vague threats of online predators or cyberbullying, especially when you believe your child’s character is strong enough to overcome those threats. 

But it’s not about how good or wise your child is. These things can happen to good kids too. They can happen to smart and wise kids too.

It’s important to note that predators are so adaptable – the lures they use can change and we can’t always foresee the way they might try to manipulate a child they’ve targeted. It’s also hard to even keep track of all the ways children might be exposed to harm. At a 4-hour Senate hearing with tech CEOs, “There was talk of child sexual abuse material (also known as CSAM), suicide, bullying, drugs, lethal viral trends, extortion, disordered eating and mental health issues — all linked back to the use of social media.”

Many people feel that it’s just a reality that social media and smartphones are a tool that kids need to learn to navigate – much like a stove. They need to know how not to burn themselves, even as they need to learn how to cook. We’re linking here to a Washington Post article that lists some ways to protect your kids online. Examples include: keeping smartphones out of their bedrooms at night, delaying the introduction of social media for as long as possible, and having conversations about their algorithms and the content they’re being fed. 

It seems that the common clincher, however, in forcing kids to do what predators want is the shame factor – the threat of something they did or shared being exposed to other people. Emphasizing to our kids our unconditional love and the fact that we, as their parents, educators, or safe mentors, will help them navigate a problem no matter how badly they feel they’ve made a mistake may be the biggest safeguard for protecting them from further damage. Having conversations with our children about these things may be the most important form of protection available.

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