Opinion: Why Kiwi parents need to be concerned about spike in sextortion cases and how to keep kids safe 

OPINION: As a Mum of three, I don't think it's an overstatement to say one of our generations' biggest battlegrounds as parents is: the battle of devices.

When to get them, how to balance our childrens' time on them each day, and what restrictions to put on them. Whether it's phones, iPads, laptops, PS4s - or whatever particular devices you have in your family home. It's a tricky path, to say the least.

As a journalist, I thought I had a pretty good handle on all the major online risks, and sextortion didn't rate highly among them - and it should have. It was only after I started investigating this crime, that a whole new worry entered my parenting bubble.

Sextortion is exactly as the name suggests, extortion with a sexual element. It's almost entirely done online but there are so many different ways sextortion can take place. A gorgeous young student can slip into the DMs of another student in a different part of the country. Their chat quickly turns flirtatious, which leads to sharing pics and eventually, that may turn sexual.

And that young student thinks he's building a relationship with a potential partner, whereas he's actually conversing with a scammer. And they're usually a sophisticated criminal often based on the other side of the world. The minute our bright, young student sends pictures, the threats and financial demands begin.  

Down country a young girl who's willingly sent nude pictures of herself realises those pics have gone far further than her trusted original recipient. They are circulating across peer groups, and high schools in her town. And this is causing her extreme anxiety and depression that could last for years. 

Sextortion is a harm rising at alarming rates, across the world and here in New Zealand. 

Since 2019 Netsafe has experienced an 88 percent increase in sextortion reports. It is increasingly targeting our youth. Over the previous year, Netsafe received 44 percent more reports from people aged under 21 than people aged over 21. It is particularly affecting our young boys. 

Netsafe's Leanne Ross has become an expert in sextortion and says it's now the biggest problem on their radar. 

"We've had victims as young as ten, and victims over the age of 65. It can also happen to people who have been in consensual relationships. And then those that have broken down and turned nasty. There's lots of different ways that this can happen to people." 

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And they are concerned about its rapid growth. "It's big and it's getting bigger, 2020 we were seeing 20 something reports a month. Now we're seeing over 200 reports a month, she says." These are professional scammers. They're often based overseas. The way they target people is working. And I think the other reason it's rising is because a lot of young people are increasingly comfortable building and maintaining their relationships online. So, it makes them quite vulnerable to people who are professional manipulators." 

Take Jack, the pre-medical student I met, who was chatting to another med student from a different university online. Or so he thought. Their chats went from flirtatious to sexual and they started to exchange photos. Which is the norm for his generation. But very quickly things turned sinister and the scammer starting demanding money from Jack, or they said his pictures were going straight to the health sciences department at university, the gateway to his career. 

"This was my first couple weeks at university. I thought I just already screwed up my career, I was worried the whole night and I didn't sleep much." 

He did what police and Netsafe say is the right thing, he didn't send money and he told someone.  "I tried to call the police, but I couldn't get hold of them at that time. And it was like two in the morning, and it wasn't an emergency. So, I called my parents to ask them what to do. Which was a bit embarrassing." 

Young males are the most common victims of sextortion making up a big portion of victims. Detective Senior Seargent Kepal Richards heads up the NZ Police Office of Child Exploitation. This issue is rising for them, by the day. 

"We're currently averaging 58 instances reported to us a month, which is over double what we had last year in 2022. And we're finding that the majority of our victims, 74 percent of them, are actually male." 

And as most of the offenders are based abroad, it's not an easy crime to follow through. 

"It is an extremely challenging time when the people are based abroad. But as I say,  I'm confident that the referrals that we make often get looked into by these other countries. And absolutely, if we identify any offenders in New Zealand, that is followed through so that we can hold these people to account." 

There are different approaches to this problem. Rob Cope is a concerned parent, turned crusader on the issue. He started investigating how to keep his own kids safe online, travelling the world. Now he travels New Zealand talking to parents.  

"We have a basic rule in our family that if our kids are going to go to someone else's house, we'll contact the parents first, either give them a phone call or just fire through a text and say, "hey, just wondering what devices you have at your house. And do you have filters in place?"  

His advice is hardline and no doubt confronting for many parents. Filter the heck out of all devices and don't let your kids use their phones for the internet. 

"I describe it as a three-day war so kids can't scream for more than three days. I've figured this out. So, if you're going to change the rules on the kids, you're going to be in for a war, but it's a war worth fighting because you're talking about the mental health of your children." 

If you're not willing to go that far, Rob has some great practical advice for every parent to put filters in place. He says 9 out of 10 families in New Zealand have inadequate filters. You can do them as simply as through the "screentime" section of your phone. Or safesurfer.io is another good one. 

There are also "takedown tools" that Netsafe has on its website. It's fantastic technology that hunts out any indecent pics you might have circulating online, that they remove. 

Netsafe's Leanne Ross is more liberal than Rob. Her approach is that one day our children leave home, so we need to teach them how to swim before throwing them in the sea. The only rule she has for her own teenager is no phones in the bedroom at night. 

"It's the only boundary that I create at that age. And the reason for that is because even as an adult, none of us make good choices between midnight and 3 a.m. So, if we can help them to avoid falling foul of that without the support, often their family are asleep and they're panicking alone." 

Whatever you choose to do, do something, as this is an issue every adult and child on a device need to be aware of. 

For parents wanting to use safe search filters, Cope recommends Safesurfer or Qustodio.

Netsafe also recommends several take down tools including Take It Down for people under 18 years old and StopNCII for people over 18.  

Juliet Speedy is Newshub's South Island senior reporter, based in Christchurch.

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