Wednesday morning, ParentsTogether, a family advocacy group with more than 2.5 million members nationwide, released an urgent advisory about a troubling new online phenomenon of sextortion.

Sexual predators are doctoring photos and videos of children into sexual images, from making a photo of a child in a bathing suit appear nude to putting a child’s face onto the body of someone engaged in a sex act. The offender then shows the victim the edited images and threatens to release them to their parents, friends, school, or social media unless the child sends them more, often increasingly graphic, photos or videos.

This warning from ParentsTogether comes after multiple reports of this happening in various states to kids as young as seven. 

According to research from Thorn, 1 in 5 nine-to-12 year olds have had an online sexual interaction where they were asked to send nudes of themselves, "go on cam," sent sexual messages, or had nudes of an adult or other children shared with them.

Recommendations for parents

Talk your children about sextortion, sending nudes, and sexual experiences online: Tell kids they can always talk to you about problems online. Set the expectation that your kids can share things they see or hear online that make them feel weird, upset, curious, or scared, and that doing so won’t make you angry or make them lose access to their device. Building trust with your kids is critical to preventing or addressing sextortion attempts. 

Set parental controls: Set them for every app and platform your kids use — especially any apps with chat functions. Parental controls aren’t perfect, but they can keep kids away from some inappropriate contact and content.

Wait on the smartphone until they are older: Many child development experts recommend delaying getting kids an internet-connected smartphone as long as possible. For younger kids who need a way to contact parents, consider a basic flip phone or phone designed for younger kids without internet access.  

Block stranger chat sites: Some apps and websites like ChatRoulette and Omegle exist solely to connect strangers and pose an outsized risk to kids for sextortion and other forms of sexual abuse. These sites aren’t appropriate for minor children and should be blocked. 

Charge devices at night in a common area outside your child’s bedroom. Limiting your child’s access to devices at night can both improve their sleep and mental health and reduce their risk of exploitation.

Recommendations for tech companies

The warning acknowledges that parents can only do so much to keep their kids safe online suggests ways that tech companies can make their platforms safer.

Enforce age limits: Most social media platforms’ terms of service say they are for 13+, but are used by millions of younger children. Platforms can help prevent abuse of the youngest and most vulnerable kids by keeping them off the platforms until they are 13.

Don’t allow strangers to contact kids: Children’s accounts should be private by default, and platforms should put in additional protections to prevent strangers from being able to contact kids. 

Offer accessible parental controls: All platforms should offer robust parental controls to allow parents to create safe boundaries that are appropriate for their individual child. Parental controls should be easy to find, access, understand, and use.

Make blocking easy: Research has shown blocking is the most popular prevention tool with kids and is used more often than reporting. Blocking functions should be easily accessible to all users, especially children.  

Find and report sexual images: Platforms should invest in both human and technical solutions to detect sexual images of children and report them to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. 

“Time and time again, tech companies have failed at making their social media platforms safe for kids, even when they become well aware of the harms. We are seeing this play out in real time, and kids are being preyed upon, blackmailed, and exploited in horrific, traumatizing ways," said Justin Ruben, co-Director of ParentsTogether. 

"These platforms owe it to the kids who use them and their parents to keep them safe and protect their mental and physical wellbeing," Ruben continued. 

“A generation ago, our parents were worried about strangers at the local park. Now, the tech industry is ushering predators right into our children’s bedrooms. Parents think their kids are safe when they are at home, but often, that’s when they are most vulnerable.” 

ParentsTogether advocated for child online safety, including launching a campaign demanding TikTok to introduce a new “mirror accounts” feature that would allow parents to see the feeds of their kids.

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