Talk to Your Kids About Online Safety, Sextortion On The Rise

This blog was written by Bruce Snell.

In my day-to-day activities at McAfee, I deal with a lot of security issues ranging from ransomware and malware to hacking wearables and power grids.  While many of those security issues can have some serious ramifications, there are strong security measures you can put in place to mitigate a lot of the threats.  However, as a father of two children under 10, uncle to numerous nieces and nephews and part time Sunday school teacher, the security issues that really trouble me revolve around children and social media.  Right now my kids exchange emails with their friends in Japan and their cousins and their grandparents, but eventually they will move on to using social media.  As a parent, that’s where the real concern comes into play.

Anyone who’s paid attention to the news in the past few years has seen a rise in oversharing, cyberbullying, online harassment and other plagues of this social age.  A recent study by the Brookings Institution has shed light on one of the more harmful online dangers: sextortion.

Sextortion is a form of cybercrime in which the offender uses personal information, such as private pictures stolen from a computer, to force the victim to engage in some form of sexual activity.  This personal information can be obtained by a piece of malware that allows the criminal full access to a compromised system.  With full access, the criminal could potentially activate the webcam without the victim’s knowledge, recording images of the victim while in various states of undress.  With younger victims, the predators mentioned in this report were able to obtain the first bit of sensitive information without any malware simply through online chats and similar interaction.

The statistics in the Brookings study are quite sobering.  In their study, 71% of the cases involved victims under the age of 18, whereas only 12% of the cases involved only adults.  The perpetrators of these crimes tended to target multiple people at once.  In the study, 13 of the cases involved more than 100 victims by a single  sextortionist.

So How Are the Victims Targeted?

In the cases involving minors, 91% involved social media manipulation.  Using publicly available data, the predator would engage the victim in conversation and lure them to anonymous messaging apps or video chats with the intent of obtaining sexually explicit content from the victim.  The predator would then threaten to post this content online where their friends and family could see if the victim did not do what the predator wanted.  As you can expect, this led to many victims giving in to the demand for fear of public shame and humiliation.

Help Your Kids Be Smart About Social Media

The main pathway for many of these predators is social media.  As parents, it’s important to talk to your children about what sort of information you share on social media and remind them that once a picture is shared (even in supposedly temporary forms like Snapchat) online, it is impossible to remove it.  Texting should be treated the same way.  Most of us know someone who has sent a private picture to a boy/girlfriend only to have that person share it with their friends.

While it may be a tough conversation to have, parents need to establish guidelines with their kids around social media.  My kids haven’t reached that age yet, so we’re still working through what our family’s social media rules will look like.  Here are some guidelines we’re using as a foundation.

Start Early:  If you start talking about online safety early on, it will make your job that much easier when your children get older.  If your kids are young, you can start with simple rules like “don’t open emails from people you don’t know.”  Treat rules for online behavior just like any other rules.  My kids now think of wearing a helmet as just part of what you do when you ride a bike.  You want online safety to be just part of normal behavior.

Friend Requests:  For teens getting started with social media, it can be exciting to have their social network grow.  A connection is made between popularity and social media “friends,” so many teens (and adults) will accept any friend requests that show up in their notifications.  This is how a lot of online predators make connections with their victims, by simply sending an unsolicited friend request.  Create a guideline with your kids that they only accept friend requests from people they know personally.

Be Friends: Your home guidelines should include requiring that you and your child are “friends” on every social media network they are on.  Doing this gives you insight into who they are interacting with online and the general tone of their interactions.  Some social networks (like Facebook, for example) provide controls for limiting what your friends can see.  You should make sure  your teens are not filtering what you see from their account.   Try to avoid using this is a way to interact with your teens.  If you comment on every post they make, they may switch  to more private channels to interact privately with their friends.

Set a Good Example: It’s extremely easy these days as an adult to get caught up spending a lot of time paying attention to our smartphones and tablets.  Kids pick up our habits, both good and bad, so you can set a positive example for them by limiting your time on social networks around them.  Putting down the phone during dinner and family time will let your children know the importance of interacting with people in person as opposed to online.

Talk:  Open communication about online behavior is arguably the most important step you can take.  Discuss with your teen the dangers of oversharing information on the internet, making sure to emphasize that once something is posted online, removing it can be extremely difficult to near impossible.  Even deleting a photo off social media does not guarantee that a copy isn’t floating around somewhere – digital is forever

Social media can be a great way to keep in touch with friends and family around the world.  However, the open nature of social networks can lead to oversharing that online predators can potentially take advantage of.  Having an open discussion with your children about online dangers can help them avoid situations with online predators and understand how to engage wisely online.



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