New research finds sextortion an issue for surprising number of teens

| Judy Berthiaume

A surprising number of teens — one out of every 20 — report that someone has threatened to share intimate or embarrassing images of them that are sexual in nature if they did not provide things like additional images, sexual acts or money, researchers say of their findings from a first-of-its-kind study.

Five percent of 12- to 17-year-olds who responded to the nationwide survey reported being a victim of what is known as sextortion, and 3 percent of the teens admit to threatening to share explicit images of someone else, says Dr. Justin Patchin, a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire criminal justice professor and an expert on cyberbullying.

“We were expecting a fairly low number so while 5 percent isn’t huge, it’s higher than we thought it would be,” Patchin says of the study that he completed with his research partner, Dr. Sameer Hinduja, a professor at Florida Atlantic University. “Sextortion is not as widespread as some issues we’ve studied, but 5 percent is not insignificant when you think that it means that one out of 20 teens are being threatened in this way.”

Most often, sextortion involves a teen voluntarily sending an explicit image of themselves to someone, often a boyfriend or girlfriend or someone they are romantically interested in. The person receiving the image then threatens to share it if their demands are not met.

Sextortion gained attention in the media and elsewhere several years ago after Amanda Todd, a teen in British Columbia, killed herself after being victimized by a man she met online, Patchin says, adding that the U.S. Justice Department has labeled sextortion as the most important and fastest-growing cyber threat to children.

Despite the growing awareness, there had only been two research studies done that looked at sextortion, and neither of those studies asked teens about their experiences with it, Patchin says.

With that in mind, Patchin and Hinduja included questions about sextortion in their 2016 national survey of 5,500 middle and high school students.

Some of their findings include:

  • Five percent of survey respondents report being a victim of sextortion, and 3 percent of teens admit to threatening to share an explicit image of someone else.
  • Nearly half of the students who said they had been the victim also admit being an offender.
  • Males were more likely to be the victim of sextortion, and much more likely to be an offender.
  • Youth who identified as non-heterosexual were more than twice as likely to be the victim of sextortion.
  • Most teen sextortion experiences occurred within the context of an existing friendship, romantic or otherwise. Few teens were targeted by someone they did not know well.
  • Teens are reluctant to tell adults when they are the victims of sextortion, though girls are significantly more likely than boys to tell a parent.

Of the study’s findings, Patchin says he found it especially interesting that so many teens are both victims and offenders of sextortion.

It could mean that some teens are retaliating against someone who had previously targeted them, or that victims think these kinds of threats are normal teen behaviors because they had previously experienced it, he says.

Patchin says he was most surprised to find that males are more likely to be the victim of sextortion, Patchin says.

“Most of the public stuff we hear about it involves female victims, like Amanda Todd,” Patchin says. “We weren’t expecting to find that boys are more often the ones victimized.”

He wasn’t surprised, however, to find that more non-heterosexuals are targeted, Patchin says.

Given that the teen years are a time of exploration, non-heterosexual teens or teens who are exploring their sexuality are particularly vulnerable to threats, especially if they have not yet come out to their parents or peers, he says.

The current study — published in the prestigious Sexual Abuse journal — provides a basic understanding of how many youth experience sextortion, as well as who targeted them and who they told, Patchin says.

Hopefully, by sharing their baseline data and encouraging conversation around sextortion, more teens will consider the risks associated with sharing explicit or embarrassing digital content, Patchin says.

They also want teens to understand that while sextortion is a growing problem, only 3 percent of their peers are threatening others in this way, meaning it is not typical teen behavior, Patchin says.

It also is important that parents, educators, law enforcement officials and others who interact with teens understand the issue, and how to best support teen victims who come to them for support, he says.

Future research will likely focus more on what motivates a person to make these kinds of threats, the extent of harm done to teens because of sextortion, and how often an offender follows through with their threats if their demands are not met.

“There is much more that needs to be done,” says Patchin, noting that October is National Bullying Prevention Month. “We finished our study with more questions than answers.”

Patchin and Hinduja, co-directors of the Cyberbullying Research Center, regularly share their expertise with parents, teachers, law enforcement officials and others during presentations across the United States and the world. They also are regularly quoted in the news media.

Patchin will be in New Zealand Oct. 6-14 to present at the 2018 Netsafe Conference.

To discuss the sextortion research findings or other issues that relate to teen use or misuse of technology, contact Dr. Justin Patchin at 715-836-4058 or patchinj@uwec.edu.

Photo caption: Dr. Justin Patchin's latest research focuses on the growing issue of sextortion among teens. October is National Bullying Prevention Month.