As a mental health professional for the last thirty years and as Chief Operating Officer for Mental Health for the charity Alternative Futures Group for the last five years, I have seen the positive impact of social media for online discussion, sharing experiences and giving people living with mental health problems a voice. All in a way that would not have been possible without social networking sites.

But the online world we live in now exposes young people to criminal organisations on the other side of the world, twenty-four hours a day, who are systematically targeting people for greed. Mental Health Awareness Week gives us the opportunity to discuss a darker side of social media and how it can impact mental health by the targeting of young people through sexual blackmail online, with tragic consequences including suicide. The rise has been so dramatic that the National Crime Agency sent an unprecedented national alert to teachers at the beginning of this month to raise awareness and support victims.

The practice of online sexual exploitation for financial gain, popularised by the term sextortion, includes all ages and genders but there has been a high prevalence of boys and young men aged 14 to 18 being targeted. Victims are contacted online by someone pretending to be another child or young person and are persuaded to share intimate images of themselves. They are then threatened with the images being posted online and shared with family and friends unless they agree to pay the blackmailer.

Sextortion most commonly begins via social media networking sites, messaging applications and video chats but the conversation may then move to a private messaging app. Offenders may be driven by sexual or financial motives. According to the National Crime Agency, ‘financially motivated sexual extortion is usually carried out by organised crime groups based overseas who are typically motivated by money’. Research into this phenomenon identifies feelings of shame, helplessness and fear experienced by victims which can make them reluctant to disclose their situation and ask for help. This can lead to mental health problems including anxiety, depression and isolation and increasing the risk of self-harm and suicide.

The key steps to staying safe are:

Frequent conversations with youngsters about sex, relationships and online safety. As a father of four I understand how difficult and embarrassing this could be for many parents, but a shared understanding of the issues and risks will benefit everyone.

Understanding privacy settings to limit who can access a young person’s profile and what information visitors can see. These are available on most websites and apps when online profiles are created. They are often public by default until changed in settings. And remember that youngsters can access online accounts using multiple devices including phones, laptops, tablets and games consoles.

Sharing knowledge about where to find information and share concerns such as CEOP Education, Childline and Brook. As parents we want our children to know they can come to us with any concerns but feeling that you are to blame for the problem and the fear of being found out are powerful inhibitors to speaking to loved ones. Young people need to know that there are always alternatives to taking matters into their own hands and they are not alone.

National Crime Agency guidance on what to do in a case of sextortion advises:

  • Don’t pay, do stop contact and block them on any accounts.
  • Avoid deleting anything to support the police investigation.
  • Report the matter to the police or CEOP.
  • Reassure the young person that they have done the right thing.

By having these difficult, but vital, conversations, we can only hope to give our youngsters the knowledge, tools and resilience to be able to stay safe in the online world where they spend much of their time.  And of course, social media sites are under pressure to do more for young people’s safety online including young people being able to report abuse easily and for it to be dealt with quickly.

Ultimately, young people need to know that even if they believe they have done something wrong or crossed a line, there is always a way to deal with the situation, however terrified or alone they are feeling.

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