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Sean D. Reyes
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Sexting, Sextortion & the Dark Side of Social Media

The following is an excerpt taken from Pat Reavy’s recent article in the Deseret News on April 1: Uncovering secret that led to son’s suicide. Michelle Upwall is an Education Specialist with the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force and a member of the Utah Attorney General’s Office.

There is little that shocks Michelle Upwall anymore after being with the Utah Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force for so many years.

But when she was called by a woman concerned about her daughter’s online activities — and then found a 9-year-old girl crying in a closet because she had been talking to five adult men and sending pornographic pictures of herself — even Upwall was startled.

In 2017, the Deseret News talked to police and school officials about the dangers of sexting, something that has become so commonplace in Utah’s schools that some students will argue it’s just part of what their generation does. It’s harmless fun, many argue.

“I don’t think they think it’s a big deal. Or they think, ‘It’s just going to this person I’m sending it to.’ But it never does. And if parents don’t think it’s big deal, that’s the tough part. And unfortunately, a lot of the time parents don’t even know what’s going on until it becomes huge,” Upwall said.

“Parents will say, ‘Well, we did things when we were kids. This is what they’re doing now — sexting.’ I’m like, ‘What? No. So you’re OK with them sending explicit images and videos of themselves?’ They’re justifying it. Parents just don’t think it’s a big deal and that’s why it’s such a huge problem, not just the predator thing but sexting itself just between kids.”

Today, there is no shortage of cases currently being investigated by law enforcement officers in Utah involving teens and even pre-teens involved in sexual activity online, as well as predators preying on these children.

In the case of the 9-year-old girl, the initial contact started while she was in an online gaming chatroom.

“Online gaming chat rooms are a huge, huge, huge place for predators,” Upwall said.

From there, someone — presumably an adult man — groomed her to move their conversation to Kik — an app that Upwall believes can be particularly dangerous.

“Kik is very dangerous because first of all it’s an anonymous app and it’s really easy to connect with strangers,” she said, explaining that it doesn’t have as effective safeguards and age verifications as some other apps. “So it’s easy for kids to talk to strangers of all ages in public groups. … We get a lot of cybertips related to Kik because there are many, many predators using this app to target kids.”

There are few hard statistics kept on the frequency of sextortion. But based on the caseload of investigators with the Internet Crimes Against Children task force and even local law enforcers, Upwall believes the incidents are on the rise. And the age of children being lured into explicit behavior on social media apps is getting younger.

A sampling of other recent investigations collected in court documents by the Deseret News over the past four months include:

  • In Sandy, police began investigating a disturbing case in December involving the HOLLA app. Three girls — ages 12, 12 and 13, who all attend the same middle school — “were sending nude photos and videos to guys they believed to be in their 20s or 30s.” The girls admitted to sending nude videos of themselves to multiple men on several occasions.
  • In Logan, police say an adult man offered a 14-year-old girl money in exchange for nude photographs. “She sent the male several pornographic images and videos of herself via Instagram and text message,” police wrote. But when the girl later cut off communication with the man, he became mad and demanded that she pay him approximately $2,000 or he would upload the pornographic images that she sent him to the Internet and send them to her friends.
  • In a separate case in Logan in December, police were investigating reports of a 14-year-old and a 17-year-old exchanging photos on Snapchat and images livestreamed on Facebook.
  • In December, police in West Valley City were called to investigate a juvenile girl who was using the app Discord to send nude pictures and videos to an adult male.
  • In another Sandy case, police investigated an incident in which several members of a high school girls sports team posed topless in a hot tub for a picture that was distributed to their group via Snapchat. Several months later, one of the girls was informed that a boy at another school had received a copy of it. Police were attempting to discover how the photo was “leaked,” and were looking at whether an ex-boyfriend of one of the girls accessed her phone and sent the photo to himself.
  • In December, an 18-year-old Utah State University student reported to police that she was contacted by an unknown person who acquired racy pictures of her when she was 16 and 17. “I have many more pics and vids like these from hacking your phone,” the unknown person told the student. “If you want me to delete them, you’re gonna have to do something for me. … If you try to ignore these or delete your account, block me, or tell anyone about this, I’ll send them around to your family, friends and around campus. When the woman tried blocking the person on Instagram, she received another message stating, “If you try (to) block me again … I have all your family and friends’ social media. I’m not … playing with you. If I don’t get a reply, I’m sending these.”

Upwall said when young girls send explicit photos, “they’re looking for attention from older males. They think that’s cool.”

Some girls seeking attention have image issues and are self-conscious about themselves, she said. Other girls are pressured by their boyfriends, or older men who gain their trust, into sending explicit photos and videos.

The ages of the girls sending these photos keeps getting younger, she said. Part of that is because many elementary school-aged children now have smartphones.

“The problem is parents aren’t talking to their kids. And parents, a lot of times, don’t know how these apps or these phones work,” Upwall said. “Snapchat is a big one that we still continue to see as a problem because kids think it (a message or a photo) goes away. We know it doesn’t.

“They just hand them these phones and they go off into the world. And they’re learning from their peers or they’re learning from predators. Because predators are more than willing to answer these questions and pay attention to them.”

Another problem is youths who don’t make their accounts “private,” making their posts available for anyone to see.

“Most kids, and this is the scary thing, most kids keep their accounts open, public, because they value their popularity status on how many likes, how many followers, how many friends. And that’s the scary thing,” Upwall said.

In fact, Upwall will randomly check the Instagram accounts of juveniles at the beginning of each school quarter to see how many publicly post their schedules. And about 95 percent do, she said.

“That gives predators so much information.”

There are apps nowadays that are created by predators for predators, she added. Sometimes there can be as many as 10 new apps a day that pop up.

The most dangerous apps are the ones that have real-time and livestreaming capability, she said. Those videos are nearly impossible for investigators to recover.

“Those are ones we don’t ever want to see kids go to, because they will be told to do different things, explicit things, and you don’t know who’s on the other end,” she said. “You can have anybody on the other end telling these kids what to do.”

One tool for parents is Common Sense Media, which can help them become educated about different apps and how dangerous they are. But because there are so many, Upwall said the best thing parents can do is communicate and educate.

Sexting is huge in Utah, Upwall said, and is often underreported. To many teenagers, they don’t see a problem with it.

“They just think in the moment right now. They don’t think about the future,” she said.