In the first half of this year, reports of teenage males being sexually exploited online reached “shocking” levels, according to a study issued Monday by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF).

The organization, a U.K. charity working to remove images of child sexual abuse off the internet, revealed that it received more reports of “sextortion” in the first half of 2023 than it did in the entire year 2022.

When sexually explicit photographs or videos are sent online and the victim is then threatened with blackmail for sharing the content with friends and family or more broadly on the internet, this is known as sextortion.

According to the report, the IWF looked at 191 sextortion complaints in the first half of 2023 as opposed to just 30 in all of 2022. Analysts verified 75 of the 191 complaints, and they pushed to have the offensive content blocked or taken down from the internet. That represents an increase of 252% from 2022, when 21 corporations were subject to action.

IWF CEO Susie Hargreaves stated in a statement: “It is shocking to see that more children are being cynically targeted in this way by manipulative abusers online.”

Ian Critchley, the U.K.’s National Police Chief’s Council lead for Child Protection and Abuse Investigations, continued, “[T]his data is deeply disturbing, showing a significant rise in the appalling and cynical way criminals seek to make money from abuse and coercion, with no thought for the life-long harm it causes these children and young people.

It’s crucial to put the IWF’s statistics into context, even though they may surprise some people. Child sexual abuse material is a serious issue, but Paul Bischoff, a privacy advocate at Comparitech, a website that offers evaluations, guidance, and information on consumer security solutions, stated that just because there are more reports at the IWF doesn’t mean that there has been an equivalent and proportionate increase in abuse.

He told FluidGeek that the rise might be due to more victims turning to the IWF as it gains popularity and credibility.

Teen Boys are the Target

One of the IWF’s analysts, who goes by the name Zara to protect their identity, observed that victims who contact the organization are terrified and frantic to have their photographs removed from online sharing. Zara stated in a statement, “If they immediately submit the material to us, we can hash and prohibit the unlawful image.

A hash is a string of text and numbers created from a picture’s binary data that can be shared with online platforms to help them stop the spread of the material. It serves as a digital fingerprint.

According to the IWF research, boys between the ages of 14 and 17 are the most vulnerable, and abusers most frequently target them. According to the statement, at least 6% of the content was rated as Category A, the most serious classification that can also entail penetration.

Several factors make boys, especially young boys, vulnerable to sextortion, according to Daniel Castro, director of the Center for Data Innovation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that examines the relationship between data, technology, and public policy.

“Some of this is related to the teenage brain — teen boys are likely to be impulsive, misread social cues, and engage in risky behavior,” he said to FluidGeek. “Some of this is due to inexperience, particularly with relationships and sexuality.”

He said, “Consider a teenage boy who gets a message from a friend expressing interest in them. “They exchange pictures and videos, and the young man is unaware that bullies, con artists, or someone else is truly after him. In order to keep these private chats and media from being public, the other party is now requesting money or something else, like further images and videos.

Unfortunately, this scenario has occurred much too frequently, he remarked. And to make matters worse, several of these lads panicked and killed themselves.

Predators’ Newest Playground

Young boys use the internet frequently, which makes them appealing prey for predators, said Chris Hauk, a consumer privacy champion at Pixel Privacy, a producer of consumer security and privacy guides.

Predators now visit numerous types of playgrounds, including social networks, online forums and chat rooms, and online gaming arenas, he told FluidGeek. “While 20 or 30 years ago, predators would hang out at parks and playgrounds to entice children, they now frequent different types of playgrounds,” he said.

“Crimes against children have increased in the past few years, as there was a huge increase in people staying at home and getting online more, especially children,” he continued. Kids are playing games online, communicating with peers through chat rooms and social media, making them more and more appealing prey for predators.

The volume of child sex abuse content removed from social networks has increased year over year, which highlights the severity of the issue. For instance, from January through September 2022, Facebook identified 73.3 million pieces of “child nudity and sexual exploitation” content, compared to 77.5 million for the entirety of 2021.

Additionally, it should be remembered that Facebook only reports content that has been found and removed by Facebook. The true amount of content including child sexual abuse (CSAM) that is being shared online is probably substantially higher.

According to Hauk, “CSAM is a growing issue, and it is challenging for tech companies like Apple to protect users against it without invading their privacy.”

Communication’s Vitality

According to Huddleston, there are several tools available to parents to assist them manage who can contact their child or view the stuff they provide, both on platforms and as standalone services.

“Parents or other trusted adults in a teenager’s life should have conversations with them about what to do if they find themselves in a problematic situation online,” the expert suggested. Although the digital age has many advantages, young people also need to be aware of potential threats and know how to react to or report inappropriate behavior.

The focus of policy in this area should be on giving law enforcement the resources to pursue the bad actors rather than erecting obstacles to prevent kids from using the internet in productive ways, she added.

Yaron Litwin, CMO of Canopy, a company that creates software and tools to track children’s devices and online behavior, adding that if a child is receiving sextortion threats, they should immediately stop communicating with the offender and refrain from sharing any further personal information or explicit content.

He told FluidGeek, “It’s important to tell a trusted adult, like a parent or teacher, and report the incident to law enforcement.” The youngster should not feel guilty or ashamed because they are the victims in this case; instead, the evidence should be kept.