The internet has caused the world to change, and not all for the better.
My son isn't old enough yet to show an interest in signing-up for a social network or be drawn into chatting with strangers online, but that doesn't mean I'm not already thinking about how he'll cope with problems I never faced when I was his age. Issues like cyber-bullying and online sexual extortion.
And there's no doubt in mind that it has been further fuelled by the increasing uptake of smartphones, and the presence of computers in bedrooms (rather than in a shared family room).
The problem of young people being blackmailed online and coerced into sending webcam videos or photos of themselves, has grown to such an extent that Europol has launched a campaign to raise awareness of the problem:
Offenders may try and approach you online to get sexual photos or videos of you. To achieve this, they will try to make you feel special by pretending to be your friend. They might say nice things to you to gain your trust. They may also lure you into sexualised conversation and performing sexual acts online. Once they get hold of your sexual photos or videos, they may demand you send more, or ask you for money, threatening to post the images on the internet or share them with your friends and family if you don’t do as they say. They can be very clever at making you feel guilty about what has happened to stop you from getting help.
I can't underline enough just how serious these sorts of crimes are. As I've reported before, the worst cases of such blackmail have even resulted in young people committing suicide. According to Europol, children as young as seven have been targeted online.
Europol's advice is to tell a friend or an adult you trust if someone tries to coerce you into sharing sending them intimate photos, or threatens to share private pictures or videos of you with your friends. You should also report it to the police.
Here are some tips to help you or your children avoid becoming the next people blackmailed in this fashion:
- Always be wary of strangers befriending you on social networks. If they're suddenly showing a romantic interest in you, ask yourself if it's likely that they would have fallen for you out of the billions of other internet users.
- Never put yourself into a compromising position on your webcam and keep your clothes on. You cannot be sure that the person at the other end isn't recording everything that is taking place. Additionally, don't give away too much personal information to someone you don't really know.
- If anyone does ever attempt to extort money from you online, don't pay them. Contact the police instead. You may be embarrassed about the mess you have got yourself into, but the authorities are the right ones to investigate and (hopefully) bring the culprit to justice. In many cases, the blackmailer may not follow through with their threats to share the images.
- If you’re worried that hackers might be able to see you through your webcam, take care over the links you click on and the software you install on your computer, keep your security patches and anti-virus software up-to-date and consider sticking a band-aid over the webcam when you don’t want to use it.
- Protect your family by educating them about online threats, and the risks of internet blackmail. Consider encouraging the use of the computer in a shared, family room rather than their bedroom. In that way, inappropriate behaviour can be more easily monitored and it is less likely that youngsters will be drawn into inappropriate communications. Of course, it is very difficult to balance with this with the understandable desire as your children get older to give them more freedom.
For more advice, visit Europol's page campaigning against the online sexual coercion and extortion of young people: www.europol.europa.eu/sayno