In recent years, an alarming trend known as sextortion has gained prominence, affecting children and teens across various demographics. According to reports from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), there has been a notable increase in cases involving young individuals who are coerced into sending explicit images (defined as nude or partially nude images) online, followed by demands for money. This crime, called sextortion, poses a serious threat to the well-being of teenagers, including exchange students hosted in the United States.
What is Sextortion?
Sextortion typically begins innocently, with a teenager meeting someone on social media who initially appears to be a peer. However, the individual on the other end is often a predator. As the relationship progresses, the predator suggests exchanging explicit photographs or requests that the student sends explicit images of themselves. Once the compromising images are in their possession, the predator attempts to extort money from the student by threatening to share the images with their friends, family, or on their social media accounts unless a payment is made. Initial demands can reach up to $500, sometimes requested in the form of an online gift card, with the possibility of additional demands if the student complies.
The Challenge of Reporting
Many teens, feeling embarrassed and fearing consequences, may hesitate to report incidents of sextortion. This delay in seeking help underscores the need for open communication between hosted students and their host families and support volunteers. Maintaining an environment where students feel comfortable discussing their concerns is crucial in addressing this growing issue.
Host Family Role
Host parents can play an important role in raising awareness about online safety with their student(s) by doing two things:
- Ensure your student has reviewed the AFS student resource: Online Safety & Sextortion
- Initiate conversations about the risks associated with online interactions. Creating an open non-judgmental space and establishing open communication on sensitive topics will make them more likely to come to you if there is a problem. The AFS community encourages an open dialogue about the risks of sextortion, stressing the importance of immediate reporting if such incidents occur. At the end of this article there are some examples of questions and statements that you can use to guide the conversation.
Recognizing that different cultures may approach topics of nudity and sex differently is essential. Students with a more indirect communication style may be less likely to initiate discussions on sensitive subjects. In such cases, host families are encouraged to proactively engage in conversations, creating a supportive atmosphere for exchange students to express their concerns and seek guidance. If you are not comfortable having this conversation with your participant, please contact your AFS liaison or your support volunteers to assist.
Resources for Support
Information sharing, and open communication are the best ways you can support and help a student from another culture who may be more prone to misreading cues as they try to make connections online. We encourage you to reference the following article from the FBI and read the section titled ‘What Caregivers Need to Know’, which has some helpful insights to facilitate discussions about online safety and sextortion:
If you suspect that your hosted student has been involved in any type of sextortion incident, please contact your local support volunteer leaders immediately. You can also contact AFS using the following contact information.
- In case of an emergency involving a participant call 1-800-AFS-INFO, press 9
As the prevalence of sextortion continues to rise, it is crucial for host families to join AFS and play an active role in educating and protecting their exchange students. By fostering open communication, raising awareness about the risks, and providing resources for support, host families can contribute to creating a safer online environment for teenagers navigating the complexities of social media and virtual connections through an intercultural lens.
Questions and statements to initiate a conversation about online safety and sextortion:
Opening the Discussion:
"I want to talk about something important, and I want you to know you can always talk to me. Has anyone ever tried to pressure you into sending explicit photos or messages online?"
"When you're online, has anyone you don't know ever tried to contact or talk to you?"
Understanding Their Experience:
"What did you do or what would you do if someone you don't know tried to talk to you online?"
"Why do you think someone would want to reach out to a kid online?"
Highlighting the Importance of Safety:
"You know, it's easy for people to pretend to be someone else online. What steps do you take to stay safe, like blocking or ignoring messages from strangers?"
"If you ever feel uncomfortable or scared online or offline, my priority is helping you. You can always come to me."
Discussing the Risks of Sharing Images:
"Let's talk about sharing pictures. What do you think could happen if you sent a picture to someone?"
"Once a photo is sent, it's out of your control. Have you ever thought about the potential consequences?"
Addressing the Consequences of Forwarding Images:
"Have you heard of anyone sending a picture that ended up getting passed around school or online?"
"What do you think about the importance of not forwarding explicit images? It's a major violation of trust."
Sharing Real-Life Examples:
"I read an article today about kids being pressured to send images online. Have you ever heard about anything like that?"
"Sometimes, kids are threatened and harassed. It's pretty scary. What would you do if you found yourself in a situation like that?"
Remember, the goal is to establish open communication, so your student feels comfortable discussing any concerns they may have. Encourage them to trust their instincts and reassure them that your primary concern is their safety and well-being.
Please see the links below for additional information and resources:
- Sextortion – What Parents Should Know
- Talking to Teens about Sexting
- Social Media Safety for Teens