When most of us think of bullying, our minds wander back to childhood and the playground meanies who tormented younger or weaker children. Unfortunately, the reality of bullying in the digital age is far more serious.
With the advent of cyberbullying and its related crimes, a victim doesn’t even have to live in the same state as his bully, or even the same country. How is this possibly accurate? It’s largely in part due to a new category of cyberbullying known as “sextortion.” The “extortion” part of that term is what allows anyone to be victimized, even from far away.
A sextortion case involving an international student at the University of Evansville-Indiana and a fifteen-year-old girl from Danvers, Massachusetts, highlights this exact problem. A Saudi student from the university, Abdulrahim Altalhi, reached out to the girl through the social connection app Kik, posing as a young girl from London. They struck up a friendship, and then Altalhi asked for a racy photo of the girl. She inexplicably complied, and from there, she was his victim. Altalhi threatened to send the photo to her friends and family members through Facebook if she didn’t comply with the rest of his demands, including appearing nude on Skype video chat and getting nude photos of her friends to send to him.
When the demands finally included meeting him in person to have sex and the girl refused, Altalhi followed through with his threat by sending the photo to the victim’s sister. The girl thankfully rejected her stated plan of committing suicide and reached out to her father for help. Unfortunately, sextortion is still a difficult crime for law enforcement to identify. The very reason it works is because victims are terrified to come forward, afraid of disappointing their families and of being ridiculed by their peers. There have even been instances where victims were convinced they were the ones who’d broken the law for sending nude photos, thereby making them culpable if they reached out for help.
One of the chief issues that leads to sextortion is the growing belief in “anonymous” internet services or mobile device apps that lead young people to believe this behavior is innocuous. There have even been apps that brazenly stated they were created for anonymous messaging; the founders of the “disappearing” video message app Snapchat claimed that no content was storable and that they were literally created for sexting, or the practice of sending nude photos to someone without fear that the recipient would send it to others. When Snapchat was the victim of a hacking data breach that accessed the content sent from hundreds of thousands of accounts, it was actually the cell phone carriers’ servers that were hacked, meaning even the creators of the app weren’t fully aware of the dangers of their service.
Too many young users don’t realize that screen capturing, screen grabs, and even recording the images with an external recording device provides all of the evidence a cyberbully needs to torment a victim. Once he has the incriminating pictures, videos, or even text, he can unleash his demands.
It is vital that parents make some things clear when talking to their kids about internet safety. First, nothing is ever safe, anonymous, or deleted online. Anyone with the right know-how can get their hands on it, and can do whatever they want with it. But the more important need is for parents to make sure their kids understand that their happiness and safety outweigh any potential disappointment or embarrassment; parents must convey to their kids the understanding that their lives are more important than any little mistake.