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Sextortion is becoming your child’s greatest threat

Indonesian players concentrate on their game during the esports matches at the 30th South East Asian Games in San Juan, Philippines, on Thursday Dec. 5, 2019.
Aaron Favila, Associated Press

Like any good sixth grader, I just wanted to keep up with my friends, and my friends happened to be obsessed with RuneScape — an online role-playing fantasy game where players whiled away hours developing their character’s skills in magic and fighting.

To what end? So they could battle other players and, well, spend more time learning magic. Real productive stuff.

Perhaps because of my distant Quaker ancestry, I preferred a life of pacifism to that of head hunting. I carved out a niche as a woodcutter, which came with two benefits: It made pretty good virtual cash, and I mostly avoided interacting with the throng of medieval jocks.

Still, on one occasion while quietly chopping yew trees, another player approached me and asked through the in-game chat if I had seen the news.

“No,” I answered. “What happened?”

London had been bombed, he said, and dozens of people had died in the underground explosion. I learned he was from England, and he was rounding up sympathy from fellow gamers.

Shocked, I wandered into the kitchen to find my mom. “Guess what!” I called. “I just talked to some guy from England and he said London was attacked by terrorists.”

Apparently, I didn’t think referencing “some guy from England” was enough for my mom to investigate the game, learn how I could chat with people the world over through a veil of anonymity, and eventually expel me from any further fantasy fun.

Ah well, I didn’t have a future in gaming, anyway. Looking back, it was the right move for me on the part of a concerned parent.

That experience could well describe any number of the 97% of U.S. teenage boys who report playing video games on some kind of device — from smartphones to PlayStation 4. The difference is my innocuous encounter didn’t end with demands for nude photos at the threat of having pictures of my genitalia sent to my classmates.

Such is life in 2019.

Reports of so-called “sextortion” are rising with “unprecedented frequency,” according to a weekend report from The New York Times, and the Department of Justice has now called it, “by far the most significantly growing threat to children.”

The creeps and criminals come from all backgrounds, genders and professions, but their methods are relatively uniform. They pose as a friend of a friend or some other relatable person. They contact minors where minors are found: on social platforms like TikTok, Instagram, Kik Messenger and Snapchat, or on ubiquitous online games like Minecraft or Fortnite. Discord, a text and video chat platform for gamers, is also popular with youths and pedophiles alike.

The grooming starts when perpetrators ease others into sexual conversations through harmless text and images that become more explicit as the relationship develops. They may ask for a photo — clothed at first — then flatter the child into dressing down.

At which point unmitigated wickedness sets in. “You’ve been tricked,” reads one message obtained by a U.S. District Court in Louisiana. “I’m a guy … If you obey me and do everything I want, then I will delete your pics and not email your school.” He followed up with a request for naked pictures.

In another case, a miscreant asking for nudes was stonewalled when the victim said they were busy with their little sister and aunt. After learning the baby sister was 7 years old, the perpetrator demanded nude photos of her, instead. “Please, that’s my little sister,” the victim pleaded, “I can’t do that to her. I beg you. Please.”

It’s the blackmail of yesteryear, only it’s been revamped for the digital age with costly — even deadly — outcomes. More than a quarter of sextortion cases lead to suicide or attempted suicide, according to data from the FBI. And reports of the behavior have increased 30-fold in the past six years, notes the Times, while authorities believe the vast majority of cases go unreported.

Despite its boon to humanity, the internet’s blemishes, shortcomings and failures are getting harder to ignore. At moments of public alarm over unsavory practices, companies parry with a slick sales pitch for better privacy or authentication, but we haven’t really solved some of our most fundamental concerns: Today’s gaming chats, messenger apps and social sites aren’t all that different from the chatrooms of the ’90s — the ones my elementary school teachers told me would lead to my inevitable kidnapping.

Instead, our anxiety during the internet’s infancy has resolved into a false confidence for a service that still hasn’t the power to curb human lusts. Frankenstein’s monster may have donned a new wardrobe, but he’s still wandering about.

But if the problems are the same, so too should be the response: vigilance, literacy, skepticism and self-control. If companies and Congress aren’t taking control, at least we still can.