Prevalence and impact of cyber sextortion on teenage boys

Posted on Posted in Children's Rights, Explotation, Human Rights

Numerous factors, such as the absence of adequate legislation, have presented an opportunity for sexual predators to deceive and convince young boys to share graphic multimedia content of themselves with online personas (FBI National Press Office, 2012). Once in possession of this material, predators use the photos and videos as leverage to blackmail children for their own personal gain and this often takes the form of financial payments (FBI National Press Office, 2012). This criminal activity is commonly known as ‘sextortion’ and has increased rapidly following the accelerated shift of adults and children alike to the digital space following the COVID-19 pandemic (Brewster, 2022). 

Defining sextortion

The twenty-first century has ushered in a global technological revolution. This has seen billions of people across the globe grow increasingly dependent on technology in their everyday lives. Within this new digital world, malicious actors have “weaponized” online tools to exploit vulnerable people and children. Due to the speed of technological innovation, lawmakers across the world have struggled to put in place provisions to combat this illicit activity online (Charlebois, 2022).

From here emerges sextortion,  a sub-category of child sexual exploitation in which children are blackmailed using nude or sexual images of them by a perpetrator who, in exchange, requests further illicit material, sexual activity or financial gain (National Center for Missing and Exploited Children). Sextortion is dependent on malicious actors gaining access to illicit material of children, either by stealing them or by acquiring them through deceit or coercion (National Center for Missing and Exploited Children). 

This requirement also means sextortion overwhelmingly takes place in online environments which are popular with children. These include social media websites and applications, gaming sites and communications platforms used by children (FBI National Press Office, 2022). Although victims can be as young as 10 years old, one of the most targeted groups are teenage boys between the age of 14 and 17, often by perpetrators posing as females via fake accounts (FBI National Press Office, 2022). 

Grooming and manipulation

Given children’s inherent vulnerability, offenders typically use a number of relatively simple methodologies to gain access to children and draw-out illicit material. Approaches are known to include several common steps:

Fraudulent profiles and content

Social media websites and internet-facilitated chat rooms often fail to sufficiently prevent users from obscuring their identity. This makes it easy for malicious actors to pretend to be someone they are not, or to create entirely fake profiles. Offenders almost always pose as young girls under fake personas to deceive young boys (Rosenthal, 2022). 

In addition to fraudulent profiles, offenders can use technology to manipulate and create sexually themed content from an individual’s image, even if the original media contained nothing explicit (FBI National Press Office, 2023). This enhances the risks and dangers associated with sharing personal images and videos online, whether they contain private content or not. 

Relationship building 

Offenders are known to approach children to build a relationship prior to requesting illicit images (National Center for Missing and Exploited Children). Research in the US suggests that around 40% of minors have been approached online by someone they believed to be attempting to manipulate them (Campoamor, 2022). 


Once a trusted relationship has been established, perpetrators will request nude or sexual images from the young person before threatening to share the images with family, friends or on the internet if their demands aren’t met. Offenders prey on shame and fear during these requests, which provokes confusion and leaves children more vulnerable to manipulation (Campoamor, 2022). 

To make their threats appear more realistic, perpetrators will often source contact details of the victim’s family and friends (PA Media, 2023). Perpetrators are also known to act quickly and to encourage children to move from one mode of virtual communication to another to ensure they can maintain control (National Center for Missing and Exploited Children).

Continued extortion

While some offenders may stop upon being paid following a blackmail attempt, others implement a scalable pattern of extortion, increasing their demands until the victims are unwilling or unable to meet them (Huizar, 2022). This often has catastrophic effects: suicides among teen boys facing sextortion have been recently documented in the United States of America (US), Canada and the United Kingdom both before and after sexual content was leaked (Huizar, 2022). 

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) received 18,000 reports of sextortion in 2021 leading to over $13 million dollars in bribes but believe the true number to be much higher due to a reluctance among victims to report instances of abuse out of fear and embarrassment (Campbell & Kravnik, 2022). 

A crime on the rise

The Internet Watch Foundation has stated that there have been more reports of sextortion in the first half of 2023 than in the whole of 2022 (PA Media, 2023). This represents a 257% increase in cases, accompanied by over six times as many calls to their help hotline as the entirety of 2022 (PA Media, 2023).

FBI statistics from the US mirror this trend; over 3,000 victims were identified in 2022 and more than a dozen suicides (FBI National Press Office, 2022). The US’ National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) has recorded a nearly 400% increase in sextortion reports since 2018, while Canada’s national helpline noted 500 instances of claimed sextortion in July 2023 alone (Brewster, 2022). 

In North America, the rise in sextortion has overwhelmingly resulted in teenage male victims. Canada’s Center for Child Protection stated that 92% of cases from July of this year involved young boys and men (Brewster, 2022). The majority of cases monitored by the FBI involve boys between the age of 14 and 17 (Brewster, 2022). By contrast, research from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children shows that 78% of sextortion reports between 2013 and 2016 involved female children (Brewster, 2022). 

Sextortion is primarily driven by financial gain which encourages offenders to repeat the crime for as long as they do not get caught. Against the backdrop of a rise in gaming, social media and child presence online – as well as increasing child access to bank accounts and payment mechanisms tied to their families – serial offenders are becoming more and more prevalent. 

The FBI is currently pursuing an extortionist who posed as a Californian woman and tricked at least 30 young boys into sending explicit content of themselves, this includes one 18-year-old boy who committed suicide after paying $1,500 in Apple Gift cards to the at-large offender (Brewster, 2022). While the financial implications of sextortion are minor relative to other cybercrimes, its consequences for young children are frequently grave (Brewster, 2022). 

Remedies and protection mechanisms

The multidimensional nature of the sextortion threat demands an equally broad response. Across the globe, regulators and policymakers have been calling for reforms targeted at a wide range of actors. 

Private sector 

Communications websites, gaming and social media platforms must do more to regulate and protect children from being contacted by unknown persons. The Canadian Centre for Child Protection has highlighted that Snapchat and Instagram are the platforms on which they have observed the highest prevalence of sextortion incidents (Charlebois, 2022). These two companies accounted for 42% and 38% of recent sextortion cases monitored by the Canadian organization (Brewster, 2022). 

Monitored cases included instances in which the same profile picture was being used across up to 19 accounts to extort victims (Brewster, 2022). Despite these concerns, social media companies are reluctant to comment on the direct actions they are taking to address sextortion, frequently citing other external platforms they are supporting to help increase online transparency and accountability (Brewster, 2022). 

Public sector

Governments and national agencies must first make better efforts to improve public understanding and awareness of sextortion (FBI National Press Office, 2022). This will help children to understand the dangers of online relationships, as well as parents and carers in a position to monitor their behavior (Huizar, 2022). 

Awareness-raising campaigns also help sensitize the public to the fact that sextortion can be conducted by known contacts of a child, so there is a need for children to be provided with an avenue to talk about suspicious behaviors amongst their friends and develop greater reluctance towards sharing illicit images with anyone (Huizar, 2022). 

Governments must also ensure legislation is fit to deal with transnational offences given perpetrators are often located outside of a country’s jurisdiction (Huizar, 2022). The global nature of the internet and online spaces allows children to interact with people from across the world. This is increasingly hard to combat without far-reaching domestic provisions and excellent intra-country collaboration. Criminals prey within this gap, exploiting weak information-sharing mechanisms to commit crimes thousands of miles from their physical location. 


Children themselves must be supported to be more selective with the material they share online, and to be more cautious about interacting with unknown persons online (FBI National Press Office, 2023). Families must also improve their awareness of the digital space to ensure they can empower their children with a culture of suspicion and identify when their child’s behavior is excessively risky (FBI National Press Office, 2023). 

Humanium has always advocated for a world where children’s rights are respected and protected, and where no child should ever suffer the effects of child sexual exploitation. Discover how to stand up for children’s rights, join our communityinteract with our work, and spread the word through our websiteFacebook page or newsletter!

Written by Vanessa Cezarita Cordeiro


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PA Media. (2023, September 19). “Shocking ride in number of children falling victim to sextortion, charity says.” Retrieved from STV News, accessed on 1 October 2023. 

Rosenthal, J. (2022, November 30). “Sextortion schemes targeting teen boys on the rise.” Retrieved from Fox 5 DC News, accessed on 1 October 2023.