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Understanding and combating sextortion: why boys are disproportionately affected

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The tragic case of 16-year-old Murray Dowey from Dunblane, who took his own life after falling victim to sextortion, underscores the urgent need to address this growing threat. Sextortion, or online sexual coercion and extortion, involves blackmailing individuals with the threat of publishing sexually explicit images unless certain demands are met. Anyone can fall victim, but children, especially teenage boys, are particularly vulnerable. Despite Murray's family talking openly and proactively about online risks and staying safe online he was still ensnared by this crime. This article provides insights into why teenage boys are disproportionately affected by sextortion and offers practical steps for prevention and support.

Why Are We Now Talking About Sextortion?

Globally, there has been an increase in reports of children and young people falling victim sextortion. On 29 April 2024, the National Crime Agency issued an unprecedented alert to education professionals in the UK and Scotland following a significant rise in global cases. In 2023, the number of sextortion cases reported to the US National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) more than doubled to 26,718 from 10,731 the previous year.

While all age groups and genders are targeted, a large proportion of cases involve male victims aged 14 to 18. 91 per cent of UK sextortion victims in 2023 were male. This is a startling statistic especially when compared to other online grooming offences, which predominantly affect girls. These crimes are often perpetrated by organised crime groups based overseas who put out thousands of “lines” to find potential victims. Motivated by quick financial gain rather than sexual gratification, the communication can escalate from initial contact to blackmail in under an hour.

The latest updates to Keeping Children Safe in Education (2024) states that: “all staff should be aware of the indicators of abuse, neglect and exploitation including online sexual exploitation, understanding that children can be at risk of harm inside and outside of the school/college, inside and outside of home, and online. Exercising professional curiosity and knowing what to look for is vital for the early identification of abuse and neglect so that staff are able to identify cases of children who may be in need of help or protection.”

How Does Sextortion Work?

The National Crime Agency defines sextortion as "sexual exploitation through blackmail," involving threats to publish sexually explicit pictures unless certain demands, such as sending more images or money, are met. Offenders may trick victims into creating or sending material or use AI generated or altered images to create realistic threats.

Child victims have reported five main stages of sextortion:

  1. Initial Contact: The child is contacted, typically on social media messaging platforms, by an online account appearing to belong to another child they don’t know or a hacked account of someone they already know.
  2. Escalation to Explicit Content: The chat quickly moves to become sexually explicit, often initiated by the offender sharing an indecent image first.
  3. Coercion into Sharing: The child is manipulated or pressured into taking and sharing nude or semi-nude photos or videos.
  4. Threats and Blackmail: The offender claims to have hacked the child’s personal information and contacts and threatens to share the nude or semi-nude images unless financial or other demands are met.
  5. Relentless Pressure: The child is bombarded with messages, facing threats of widespread exposure unless payments are made. Criminals will threaten that the images will go viral, be seen by their family and friend and ruin the child’s life, for example, by stopping them getting into college or university. The financial demands are not always significant (some children have reported being asked to purchase gift cards) but the fear of ongoing and escalating requests and losing control of the images can be devasting.

Why Are Boys Disproportionately Affected?

Several factors may contribute to the vulnerability of teenage boys to sextortion:

  1. Emerging sexuality: Teenage boys are at a stage where their sexuality is emerging, making them more susceptible to online exploration and consequent manipulation.
  2. Shame and embarrassment: Boys may experience significant shame about their changing bodies and may be unable to cope with the possibility of nude images being seen by their wider peer group. They may also face additional embarrassment for falling for the scam, despite awareness and online safety education at home and at school.
  3. Catastrophising: Young boys often lack the life experience or perspective to understand that the situation, though severe, will pass. They may view it as a life-defining catastrophe.
  4. Black-and-white thinking: Adolescents tend to have a binary approach to decision-making, leading them to extreme actions when faced with threats.
  5. Fear of social isolation: Threats of exposure to friends and family can be devastating for teenagers, who are particularly sensitive to social exclusion.
  6. Lack of emotional regulation: Many teenagers have not yet learned to manage their thoughts and emotions or feel able to seek help from trusted adults.

Steps to take when boys have shared images or been sextorted

Each child’s situation will be different, and support should be tailored and responsive to what has happened and their needs. However, as a guiding principle, if a student reports being a victim of sextortion you should:

  1. Not pay, stop contact, and block: Advise students not to pay any money or meet the criminals’ demands and to immediately block the offender on all platforms.
  2. Retain evidence: The child should be told to keep any messages, images, and bank details that have been shared as evidence.
  3. Report to authorities: Report the incident to the police or Child Exploitation and Online Protection Command (CEOP) without delay.

If it has already happened and the student has shared an image and sent money:

  1. Reassure them: Ensure they know they are not to blame for what has happened and have done the right thing by asking for help.
  2. Report to the police or CEOP: Call 101 or 999 if there is an immediate risk of harm and use the CEOP Safety Centre to report any online blackmail attempts.
  3. Use removal tools: Utilise tools like Report Remove, Take It Down, and direct reports to the platform or app where the incident occurred to remove shared images.

Beyond these immediate steps, measures should be put in place to support the child and help them manage any fear or concerns they have as a result of the incident. This should involve liaison with relevant safeguarding teams in the school, the family and the statutory agencies, where appropriate (which will likely be the police and/or the children’s services).

Future Measures

The tech platforms are responding to the growing risk of sextortion. Instagram is testing new tools to create nudity protection, blurring naked images in direct messaging, and turning this feature on by default for under-18s. Pop-up messages may also be introduced to alert potential victims, advising them not to respond.

Law makers are also taking steps to address the issue. The Online Safety Act 2023, which received royal assent on in October 2023, strengthens existing laws on sharing intimate images without consent and creates additional offenses, such as sending false communications, encouraging or assisting self-harm, and criminalising the sharing of “deepfake” explicit images or videos.

What should you be doing? Schools should speak openly with students and parents about sextortion and educate their student body (and especially young boys) to spot and disengage from such online conversations, and to speak to someone if they believe they have been targeted. Tailoring sessions to address and mitigate the specific vulnerabilities identified above, for example, the tendency to catastrophise, the fear of social ostracization etc. will better equip children to cope and reach out for help in the event they do fall victim.

Conclusion

The rise in sextortion cases is alarming, and it is crucial that senior leaders take proactive steps to protect students. By educating, supporting, and providing resources, we can help prevent these tragedies and create a safer online environment for all.

This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.

© Farrer & Co LLP, June 2024

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About the authors

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Katie Fudakowski

Partner

Before joining Farrer & Co as a Partner, Katie had built up a decade of experience in employment and safeguarding law practising as a barrister at Old Square Chambers. Katie is valued her for her ability to cut through to the key issues and grasp the nettle with decisive and clear advice.

Before joining Farrer & Co as a Partner, Katie had built up a decade of experience in employment and safeguarding law practising as a barrister at Old Square Chambers. Katie is valued her for her ability to cut through to the key issues and grasp the nettle with decisive and clear advice.

Email Katie +44 (0)20 3375 7361
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Sophia Coles

Senior Associate

Sophia specialises in all aspects of contentious and non-contentious employment matters. She advises on contractual and statutory entitlements, employment litigation and in relation to workplace investigations. Sophia also conducts workplace investigations. These commonly relate to disciplinary, grievance and whistleblowing matters, often involving sensitive allegations relating to bullying, sexual misconduct, and discrimination.

Sophia specialises in all aspects of contentious and non-contentious employment matters. She advises on contractual and statutory entitlements, employment litigation and in relation to workplace investigations. Sophia also conducts workplace investigations. These commonly relate to disciplinary, grievance and whistleblowing matters, often involving sensitive allegations relating to bullying, sexual misconduct, and discrimination.

Email Sophia +44 (0)20 3375 7817
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