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CBS12 News Investigates: Teens targeted with sextortion online

CBS12 News Investigates: Teens targeted with sextortion online (WPEC)

It's the fastest growing cyber threat facing kids and teens, and many parents don't even realize it's happening.

For the first time, teens across the country are sharing their personal experiences about sextortion.

Researchers at Florida Atlantic University were surprised to find boys were "significantly more likely" to become, not only a victim of sextortion, but a possible perpetrator down the road.

Ashley Reynolds was just 14-years-old when she became a victim of sextortion.

Now, at the age of 20, she is able to share her personal experience.

"I just remember getting this message that the subject line said something about naked pictures that he has of me," explained Reynolds.“I ended up getting terrorized, is the only way I can think of it, by this guy."

FBI Special Agent Laura Schwarzenberger is a part of the Violent Crimes Against Children squad.

She explained sextortion is a growing internet crime targeting children.

"Sextortion is a form of sexual exploitation in which a perpetrator uses coercion to obtain sexual images or videos, money or even sex from the victim. And a victim can be an adult. It can be a teenager or a child," said Special Agent Schwarzenberger.

A new study released by Florida Atlantic University and the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire sheds light on the alarming number of teens falling victim to sextortionists.

"This is one of the largest growing problems that kids are having to deal with online," said Dr. Sameer Hinduja, Professor at FAU’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

Dr. Hinduja also serves as the co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center that found of the 55 hundred middle and high school students surveyed across the nation, one out of every 20 teens reported being a victim of sextortion.

"I know five percent doesn't seem like a gigantic proportion, but when you extrapolate it out to the millions of kids across America, it is significant," said Dr. Hinduja.

Often, we hear of women or girls falling victim to sextortion, but their study found a different target.

"We were super surprised to learn it was males, in fact, that both participated as targets as well as aggressors in this form of offense,” explained Dr. Hinduja, “I can't say why that happened."

The research also shows sextortion rarely involves strangers.

"Many years ago, we were freaked out by the threat of predators and child pornography occurring among strangers, but we tend to see that is usually somebody that the kid knows in the real world or online that has exploited them in some way," Dr. Hinduja said.

What's more worrisome, researchers found, is that most victims don't tell a parent or another adult.

Reynolds didn't.

"At first, it was embarrassment and like awkward and crying," said Reynolds.

For months, she dealt with the feelings of shame, embarrassment and fear all alone.

"I was afraid because I didn't want to go to jail for sexting," she said.

Now, Ashley hopes her story will give other teens the courage to come forward and reach out for help.

Dr. Hinduja said children need to continue to be cautious when sharing personal content online.

He also suggested that parents and other adults supervise their children’s computer and mobile device usage and find ways to communicate the dangers associated with sharing content to unknown or even known people that could be predators.

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