'No child is safe.' How young kids are being catfished and blackmailed online.

This post mentions child sexual abuse and suicide.

A teenage boy scrolls through his phone.

He gets a friend request, it's a girl. A pretty girl.

She knows some of his friends, so he quickly clicks yes to the request. They chat for a while, and before long, the boy receives a nude photo. She wants one in return, and he's only too eager to oblige. It's then he realises "she" is not who she says she is. In fact, she is a he. Not another boy, though. A man. The man demands money, or the boy's nude image will be distributed to his family, his teachers, his peers.

A young girl sits at her laptop, she went through puberty recently, and has questions. But it's not easy to talk about. She, too, receives a friend request. It's from a girl. They have some mutual friends, so she accepts. Over the next few weeks, the two girls become online "friends", sharing their thoughts, their feelings. Her new friend sends a photo of her breasts – "Do my boobs look normal?", she asks. Keen to help, and often wondering the same thing, the girl sends one back. Here, the tide quickly turns. The "friend" is not who she says she is. This predator is a pedophile, demanding more photos or live videos, rather than money... or else.

Watch: One woman shares why she told no one about the sexual abuse she experienced when she was a child. Post continues after video.

Video via YouTube/Committee for Children.

It's known as 'sextortion', and it's occurring at staggering and increasing rates, right under parents' noses. In fact, over 70 per cent of compromising photos used to blackmail and threaten tweens and teens, are taken by the child themselves, in their own bedroom, or bathroom. Their parents might be in the next room, totally unaware of what's happening to their children.

"This is just heart-breaking," says journalist and author Madonna King, whose new book Saving our Kids, lifts the lid on this devastating and insidious crime. "I spoke to one mum who said her son sold everything from under her. We have had teen suicides as a result of this."

King stresses that we can't blame our children. "It's an unfair match: a sexual predator up against a curious 15-year-old girl. Perhaps Mum and Dad are in the kitchen only metres away from her, or she believes he will send that picture to them and her teachers and all of her friends. She feels isolated and alone."

Cases are skyrocketing.

The number of reported sextortion cases are going through the roof, according to the Australian Federal Police, with cases involving boys escalating at an even faster rate than those involving girls.

"These scammers are targeting boys, aged 12 to 24, and particularly those between 15 and 22 from my research," says King.


"In one school I spoke to, there is a case in every single year level, and multiple cases in some. Schools are trying to deal with this, families are heartbroken - and authorities believe that is the tip of the iceberg," she added.

These are just the reported cases. In reality, only a small group of children report their experience to police. In many cases, they don't even tell their parents. And things are about to become even harder.

"End-to-end encryption will make it impossible to track discussions, and AI (artificial intelligence) will bring a whole new level of crime, difficult to detect," explains King. 

No child is safe.

Experts say, it's not a matter of if, but when, children will be targeted.

"Both scammers targeting boys and predators targeting girls throw their net wide in the hope of picking up victims," King explains. "Bruce and Denise Morcombe, who lost their son Daniel years ago, had someone attempt to 'groom' their own six-year-old grandson on (popular internet game) ROBLOX. And no social media platform is safe."

No child is safe if they are online. That's what King's research for her new book has informed her. King says, in the case of boys, predators will target almost anyone, even married men.

"Boys are online a lot more (than men), and more likely to befriend someone. But once it happens, the humiliation of falling for something like this - for boys and girls - is huge.


"If your son is 17, will he come out and tell his mother this? You'd hope so, but you understand how he might not. The same goes for girls. Some have found it easier to send more detailed images or videos or to pay the money thinking it will go away."

It doesn't. Once scammers know boys have access to funds, or girls are prepared to send new content, the predator demands more.

What can parents do?

Throughout her investigations for the book, King interviewed dozens of experts, including the eSafety Commissioner, members of Interpol, the FBI and the AFP, as well as parents of children who have fallen victim to sextortion, and retired former police officer, Jon Rouse, who ran global child sexual abuse investigations for years. 

While simply being online puts your child at risk, there are some things you can do to protect them.

  • Talk to your kids. Tell them what you got wrong as a teen so if they get something wrong, they know they can tell you.
  • Make sure smart devices are kept out of bedrooms and bathrooms.
  • Set privacy settings as high as you can and hide friendship lists. Encourage your friends' children to do the same.
  • Tell your kids that organised criminals are pretending to be others, and will infiltrate their games and chats – get them on the look out. 
  • Be careful what you post. Pedophiles frequently steal and use seemingly innocent content, like a child dancing to music, or beachside images posted by parents.

Listen to Help! I Have A Teenager where Ginni and Jo have some social media practical tips, and chat about what age is appropriate to start the discussion. Post continues after pdocast.

Combatting the dark web.

According to King, one of the most shocking discoveries she made while researching her book, was just how big the trade is for sexual abuse imagery on the dark web.

"I didn't even know much about the dark web - which makes up most of the internet. But on there, millions - millions - of men are trading photos of children. It's horrible, and in some cases, they are required to upload fresh images often to stay members of these 'abuse clubs'.


"I didn't think sex abuse was so common until I started this research."

And, King says, the predators walk amongst us.

"They can have any job or any educational background; the only thing they have in common is access to children.

"I am the mother of two teens and knew hardly any of this. Do you? How many of us really understand the threats online and how vulnerable our children might be."

Sextortion is an epidemic, but we're not talking about it.

"And we need to because it is engulfing families and classes and only growing bigger. It's a difficult conversation, for sure, but what's the alternative? Our children need our help here, and our job is to provide it. 

"I'm hoping Saving our Kids helps parents start that conversation - not just with their primary school-aged children but even their young adults."

If you or someone you know is at risk of violence, contact: 1800 RESPECT.

And if you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner. If you're based in Australia, 24-hour support is available through Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.

Feature Image: Getty.