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'Everything is online': Sextortion happening in area schools: OPP

Carol Todd, mother of the late Amanda Todd, discussed online safety at event focused on protecting school-aged kids from predators, cyberbullying, and sextortion

At Collingwood Collegiate Institute and Our Lady of the Bay Catholic High School, OPP school resource officer Const. Christine Dineen has dealt with five cases of students who have fallen prey to online sextortion this school year alone.

All five were boys between the ages of 14 and 17. One lost $3,000 before he felt he could reach out for help.

The startling local statistic was one of many revealed during a panel discussion on online safety and wellness held at the Wasaga Beach RecPlex on Wednesday night, which was attended by about 200 people.

“This seems to be all we’re doing right now,” Dineen said following the discussion. “Everything is online. (Students) can’t leave it. They can’t go home and just be at peace. I get called to the schools everyday.”

Speakers for the Town of Wasaga Beach-sponsored event included Dineen as well as Brandie Sanders, psychotherapist and manager of clinical services at New Path Youth and Family Services; Dr. Rob Meeder, pediatrician and medical director for child and youth mental health at Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care; and Carol Todd, mother of Amanda Todd.

Amanda Todd was a 15-year-old student and victim of cyberbullying who died by suicide at her home in Port Coquitlam, B.C. in 2012. Todd posted a video on YouTube in which she used a series of flashcards to relay her experience of being blackmailed, extorted, bullied and physically assaulted, which went viral following her death.

Since her daughter’s death, Todd has worked as an advocate to increase awareness of bullying, sextortion, cyber abuse, internet safety, mental health and cyberviolence across Canada and beyond.

Sextortion is a serious crime that occurs when someone threatens to distribute your private and sensitive material to friends and family if you don't do something for them in return.

In a typical online sextortion case, girls and boys are treated differently, with girls usually being forced to provide more images and sexual favours, while boys are targeted primarily for money.

“(The perpetrators) will just keep asking. It will never stop,” said Dineen.

Dineen said recent statistics show there has been a 150 per cent increase in online sextortion across Ontario over the past three months, and in 90 per cent of those cases, the victims are teenage boys.

“It’s huge. They’re making millions off these boys,” said Dineen.

Todd shared stories of families she’s connected with whose children were also victims of sextortion, and when the victims ran out of money to give and the shame proved to be too much, the victims took the only action they felt they could.

“Three families I met told me...their boys died by suicide,” said Todd. “I’ve gone through this, but it was still so heartbreaking to sit with these moms who had just gone through the loss of their children.”

Todd has been doing speaking engagements in schools throughout the week, most recently speaking to Grades 4 and 5 students at Birchview Dunes Elementary School in Wasaga Beach. She said about two-thirds of the students she spoke with already had their own mobile devices.

“Kids are afraid to report and talk to their adults. Today, we had a conversation about, who our safe and trusted adults are in their community,” said Todd, listing teachers, police officers, aunts, uncles, grandparents and family friends as possibilities. “We have to listen to our kids with no judgment, and no shame.”

“If you shame and judge a kid, they will never come to you again. You won’t know if something goes bad,” warned Todd.

Dineen told parents that kids and teens may feel more comfortable reaching out to safe adults aside from parents for fear of repercussions of getting themselves into these situations in the first place.

“When these things happen to these kids, you’re the last person they want to talk to,” said Dineen. “It’s very embarrassing for them and they don’t want to disappoint their parents. Keep that in mind, and encourage your kids to have the talk (even with) a teacher or a police officer. It’s the most important thing that they get the help they need.”

Todd said it’s also crucial for parents to read everything they can about new technologies, online safety and the dangers of new technologies so they are as informed as possible. She suggested a good way to start conversations with kids about emerging technology is to ask them to explain it, which may not only help parents to learn something new, but may also provide insight into how much kids actually know.

“Technology has brought a whole new realm of life. I’ve heard, ‘I’ve had that talk with my kid, or the school has had that talk, so my kid is safe now.’ Talking about online safety is a 365/24/7 job,” she said.

Todd even suggested a good starting point in talking to kids and teenagers could be to make up a scenario.

“You can go home and say to your kid, ‘I have a coworker who wants to know what kids are doing online. Their kid won’t talk to them. Can you tell me what kids are doing?’ Your kid will just talk,” she said.

Meeder said one of the most important things for parents to remember when having these conversations is listening.

“It seems like common sense. With my kids, when we’re having dinner, I’m just listening. You’d be surprised how much your kids will say if you just let them keep talking and don’t act surprised,” he said.

Sanders recommended having conversations in the car, as it can feel less pressured since kids, teens and parents aren’t looking directly at each other.

“That can be where some of the best conversations can happen,” said Meeder.

When discussing why sextortion scams can be so effective, Dineen said kids are driven by likes, comments and shares on social media.

“It doesn’t matter if they know (the person) or not,” she said. “(Kids and teenagers) are adding people who give them attention. The biggest risk we find is they’re adding strangers. We always told our kids to not talk to strangers at the park. Now, they’re available to talk to the whole world.”

Practical advice given by all the panellists was to encourage kids with social media profiles to make sure all their accounts are set to private, and encourage them to block and report people who reach out to them who they don’t know.

Sanders said kids and teenagers are often looking for a connection, and they find it with individuals online.

“These individuals may say they’re one person, but they’re another,” she said.

“With girls, they’ll flatter them. With boys and the sexual curiosity at that age...it’s just so easy, and that’s why youth are the targets,” said Todd.

In preparation for the event, Todd said she had done a lot of reading on the South Georgian Bay and Wasaga Beach area prior to her arrival, and noted many news stories about child pornography, child exploitation/extortion and cyberbullying within the region within the last six months.

“I didn’t think this would happen in my family,” said Todd. “Exploitation is happening in your community.”

The Town of Wasaga Beach recorded the entire panel discussion, which will be made available publicly in the coming days.