What Parents Need To Know About Sextortion

Judgment-free support and proactive conversations can help children and teens navigate sextortion, a form of cyberbullying.

Teenage girl looking at phone with classmates sitting in background

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Trigger Warning

This article discusses suicide. If you or someone you know needs help, it's available. Please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or dial 988 for the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, where someone is standing by 24/7 in English and Spanish.

One mother is speaking out about online sextortion after she says it led to her son's death.

"Braden had an amazing weekend of football," wrote Jennifer Argiro-Markus in an August 24 Facebook post. "As always, he celebrated by ordering his favorite food on Saturday. Then, [he] spent the rest of the night doing homework, playing Xbox with his cousins, and sleeping...typical life of a teenager, right?"

He woke up happy the next morning, but Argiro-Marcus shares that things took a turn around 11:00 a.m. when he received a follower request on Instagram. She says it was a cyberbully pretending to be someone Braden's age, and she even sent photos to prove it.

"They messaged back and forth for about 5 minutes, then all of a sudden they wanted Braden to message using the Google Hangout app," Argiro-Markus continues. "Needless to say, the predator was not a [high school] girl, and things went south within 30 minutes."

According to Argiro-Markus, messages show the person pressured Braden into sending photos. Eventually, she says her son agreed after several attempts to say no.

"[The person] made a video up using [Braden's] Insta pictures of [him] and his friends from that weekend, his cousins, and threatened him he had to pay $1800 or else the monster was going to post this video," she says.

Braden died by suicide less than half an hour after the messaging began.

"Make sure you talk to your kids about online cyber-crimes," Argiro-Markus wrote. "Make sure you tell them over and over that when they make a mistake to come to you, nothing is worth their lives."

By Argiro-Markus' account, Braden was a victim of what's known as cyber sextortion. What does that mean, and how can parents protect their children? Here's what to know.

What Is Sextortion?

THORN, a non-profit that works to end the sex trafficking and exploitation of children, defines sextortion as threats to expose sexual images to blackmail a person. In Braden's case, it appears the person was a stranger, but THORN says familiar people, including former intimate partners, can also perpetuate sextortion.

The crime often isn't reported. According to a 2017 survey of nearly 2,100 sextortion survivors, 1 in 3 survivors reported never telling anyone, in large part because they were ashamed. More than half (54%) of those who did report being sextorted told an immediate family member or friend.

Girls are disproportionately affected, with 2 of 3 survivors being female. One quarter were age 13 or younger when threatened with sextortion.

What Meta Is Doing To Protect Tween and Teens

Meta, the company that owns Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook, is launching new privacy settings starting November 21, 2022. Meta says that anyone under the age of 16 will now be forced into more private settings when they join Facebook.

Suggested Privacy Settings for Teens to Update on Facebook:

  • Who can see their friends list
  • Who can see the people, Pages and lists they follow 
  • Who can see posts they’re tagged in on their profile
  • Review posts they’re tagged in before the post appears on their profile
  • Who is allowed to comment on their public posts

Similar settings were recently rolled out on Instagram.

How Parents Can Help Children

Parents are part of the inner circle a sextortion survivor may confide in, and it can be challenging to figure out how to help. THORN provides some tips:

  1. Make sure they know they did nothing wrong. The blame lies with the perpetrator. It's essential the survivor understands that.
  2. Empower them. They have a right to say no, block, and report the blackmail.
  3. Lead the discussion. If you're unsure if your child is being sextorted or want to be proactive in your discussions about cyber safety, THORN suggests saying, "If someone ever tries to use a photo of you to get you to do something you don't want to do—I will be here for you…and we will figure it out together."

Argiro-Markus hopes these types of discussions can bring some good out of Braden's death.

"We can't help our kids if we don't speak up, and warn them, and try to stop these predators, and you can't warn them unless you know about it," she said in her post.

If you or someone you know is being sextorted, THORN says they can receive help by texting THORN to 74141.

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