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Sextortion: Why teens are the most frequent target

Saaranen

HOUGHTON — The recent death of a 17-year-old Marquette County high school student as a result of being a victim of sextortion has sent shockwaves through the Upper Peninsula, and thanks to the bravery of the youth’s parents in wanting their son’s story to be made public to protect other community members from a similar incident, a public conversation on the topic has begun.

Houghton County Sheriff Joshua Saaranen said the suicide of 17-year-od Jordon DeMay last week — and the parent’s decision to make the story public in order to encourage the Upper Peninsula community to start a conversation about sextortion, prompted a number of calls to his office.

“With the unfortunate events in Marquette County, with the loss of a youth and that story” Saaranen said, “first of all, I give my sympathies to the DeMay family in Marquette, and to them being brave and being able to share the story and making sure that we’re talking about it and raising public awareness about it — I commend that family for that bravery — .”

Saaranen said that once the DeMay family released their story, the conversation started, his office received a couple of phone calls on Wednesday, “Just some local residents reporting that they got weird text messages.”

“It was not e-based,” said Saaranen, but the methods used by the perpetrator, as described by the callers, were similar to electronic-based complaints.

“The perpetrator begins a conversation,” said Saaranen. “Sometimes they make it sound like they know the individual somehow. The perpetrator will then send a picture or two, and then sometimes, it turns into a lewd picture or a graphic type of image.”

Saaranen said that with a lot of e-based incidents his department responds to, particularly in regard to text messages, occurs when the perpetrators start requesting images from the individual that they are contacting. What sometimes happens, he explained, is that the people are looking to use that almost as a ransom.

“What they do is they’ll threaten to release, disseminate the information to friends or family or the public, if they aren’t paid a certain amount of money,” Saarenen said. “So, that’s an overview of how these scams work.”

Sextortion is not new.

An Oct. 9, 2018, released a report on a study by researchers from Florida Atlantic University and the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire that said, in part:

“Sextortion in children catapulted into the spotlight in 2012 with the suicide of 15-year-old Amanda Todd from British Columbia. After years of online stalking, public humiliation, and cyberbullying associated with sextortion, she took her own life. Despite increased public interest in sextortion, there have been no studies to empirically examine this behavior among adolescents.”

The researchers conducted the study that explored sextortion prevalence behaviors among a nationally-representative sample of 5,568 middle and high school students in the U.S. between the ages of 12 to 17 years.

Results from the study revealed that 5 percent of these youth had been the target of sextortion, and 3 percent admitted that they had done it to others. While these percentages do not seem high, they constitute a meaningful proportion when extrapolated to a U.S. population of teens. Males were significantly more likely than females to have participated in sextortion both as a victim and as an offender, the report stated.

But why are perpetrators targeting youth? The answer to that can be found at Stanford Children’s Health.

Standord’s report, Understanding the Teen Brain, stated:

“It doesn’t matter how smart teens are or how well they scored on the SAT or ACT. Good judgment isn’t something they can excel in, at least not yet. The rational part of a teen’s brain isn’t fully developed and won’t be until age 25 or so.”

In fact, the report states, recent research has found that adult and teen brains work differently. Adults think with the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s rational part. This is the part of the brain that responds to situations with good judgment and an awareness of long-term consequences. Teens process information with the amygdala, the emotional part of the brain.

In teen’s brains, the connections between the emotional part of the brain and the decision-making center are still developing–and not always at the same rate. That is why when teens have overwhelming emotional input, they cannot explain later what they were thinking. They were not thinking as much as they were feeling.

This explains two things: First, why youth are the most frequently targeted, and why so few of them report sextortion once it has occurred. The reason lies, again, in emotions and feelings: embarrassment and humiliation.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation in a 2019 article stated that sextortion begins when a predator reaches out to a young person over a game, app, or social media account . Through deception, manipulation, money and gifts, or threats, the predator convinces the young person to produce an explicit video or image. When the young person starts to resist requests to make more images, the criminal will use threats of harm or exposure of the early images to pressure the child to continue producing content.

But why target youth, in particular?

The FBI article continues: “These predators are really good at targeting youth,” said Special Agent Kiffa Shirley in the FBI’s Billings Resident Agency in Montana (part of the Salt Lake City Field Office). Shirley recently investigated a case where the criminal offered money in exchange for explicit images from teens. That man, Tyler Daniel Emineth, was sentenced to 18 years in prison for his crimes.

“Young people don’t seem to have an on-guard mentality when it comes to strangers contacting them through the Internet,” said Shirley. “And many teens feel less inhibited about sharing online.”

Editor’s Note: The next installment in this series will examine how parents can become involved in protecting their children while online, and what they can do to help their children protect themselves from exploitation.

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