The Greatest New Cyberthreat to Teens Is a Crime Called "Sextortion"

"Very, very, very rarely is it someone you don't really know, either offline or online."


Teen sexting is on the rise, and so is a horrific new cybercrime linked to it. Researchers have found a sharp increase in the number of teens who have discovered that their nudes had been disseminated without their consent. They’re literally using nudes to blackmail one another — a new type of cybercrime called “sextortion.”

In a study, published September 28 in the journal Sexual Abuse, cybercrime researchers outlined just how significant a problem sextortion is among young people in the US.

To put it bluntly, sextortion is a form of sexual slavery. There are already some truly terrifying examples of it in action. In 2011, Luis Mijangos, a hacker from Southern California, infiltrated the computers of several women, found compromising photos, and then used them as leverage to ensure that the women kept sending him nudes. Between July and August 2018, the FBI reported that they received 13,000 more reports of sextortion to their call centers than in previous months.

Sextortion has been investigated to some degree in adults. But Sameer Hinduja, Ph.D., a professor in Florida Atlantic University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, tells Inverse that researchers haven’t bothered to investigate how this problem affects the most digitally literate people in society: teenagers.

“No one has studied this amongst youth, or published any research papers,” says Hinduja. “We did some studies, but they were retrospective, where we asked adults to remember their experience. But it’s important to talk to youth because it’s exactly what they’re living out and experiencing and dealing with on a day-to-day basis.”

Hinduja, who is also the co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, worked with University of Wisconsin Eau Claire professor of criminal justice Justin Patchin, Ph.D. to remedy this gap. Their survey of 5,569 middle and high school students showed that five percent of teens reported experiencing sextortion. Interestingly, this survey also shed light on who those blackmailers tended to be.

“Sextortion often happens with an ex-romantic partner. They’re breaking your trust,” Hinduja says. “Very, very, very rarely is it someone you don’t really know, either offline or online.”

The FBI's Data Tracking Sextortion cases throughout the US and the UK


To prevent this, Hinduja would like to see teens sending fewer nudes — though he admits that this solution may be unrealistic as the practice has become somewhat normalized in society. But even more importantly, he suggests that it’s important to give teens a sense of what’s actually normal in a relationship. Especially with a first girlfriend or boyfriend, he says that some teens may not have a good reference point to judge acceptable behavior:

“I remember my first love, and it’s wonderful,” he adds. “But it can be really jacked up. Those emotions are very new. It is possible that we need to have much more serious conversations with young people about what constitutes a romantic relationship and what constitutes a harmful romantic relationship.”

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