The parents of Carson Cleland and their local RCMP detachment in Prince George, B.C., are warning Canadians to speak to their children about social media habits after the 12-year-old killed himself last month after being sexually extorted online.
Nicola Smith told local television station CKPG this week that she and Ryan Cleland had a good relationship with their son, who frequently used the platform Snapchat, but the couple still should have had done more to understand what he was doing online.
“As much as younger kids hate parents going on their phones, maybe we have to,” she said in an interview with the station. “Talk to your kids about predators and all this stuff that’s happening and the safety online.”
Mr. Cleland said his son was unable to deal with what was happening to him.
“They’re not built for adult problems in a kid’s world,” Mr. Cleland said.
Mounties issued a statement this week saying officers went to the boy’s home on Oct. 12 and found him with a gunshot wound. Their investigation later determined he killed himself as a result of online sextortion – a form of blackmail in which threats are made to reveal a person’s online sexual behaviour, such as photos or videos obtained deceptively. Investigators are still trying to identify a suspect in the case.
RCMP spokesperson Corporal Jennifer Cooper said her detachment has seen rising incidents of online predators extorting people for money or sexual favours. This year, Prince George RCMP have received 62 reports of online sextortion, her statement said, surpassing the 56 they had last year.
“Anywhere that youth have access to social media, this is happening,” Cpl. Cooper said.
She said victims of sextortion are advised to stop all communication with their blackmailer right away, not give in to their demands, deactivate their accounts and – most importantly – reach out for help.
“These are con artists and they’re predators, and they’re only out for financial gain for themselves,” she said. “We need to be really, really sure that our kids know what kind of dangers are out there and what they can expect to encounter if they’re going online.”
Jesse Miller, a social media literacy expert who lectures at the University of Victoria and talks to teens in school districts around the province, echoed that advice. He also said, according to safer sex guidelines put out by the RCMP, minors who do share nude photos of themselves online should minimize their risk by keeping their faces out of frame at all times and not having anything in the background that could identify them or their whereabouts.
Mr. Miller said it is good Mounties and Carson’s parents are raising awareness about this exploitation because often these cases of suicide are kept private.
Many of the victims of sextortion are male. A review of 322 cases sent to the national sexual abuse tip line Cybertip.ca in July last year found that 92 per cent of cases in which the gender of the victim was known involved boys or young men.
One of the most prominent cases of sextortion in Canada was that of Amanda Todd, a B.C. 15-year-old who killed herself in 2012 after posting a video using flash cards to describe being tormented by a cyberbully. Her blackmailer, a Dutch man named Aydin Coban, was sentenced to 13 years in prison after a Canadian trial but his sentence will be served in the Netherlands, where a decision about how to convert the sentence hasn’t yet occurred.
Mr. Coban was convicted of possession of child pornography, extortion, criminal harassment and communicating with a young person to commit a sexual offence.
Cpl. Cooper said it can be “very resource intensive” for police to figure out from which country the perpetrator is operating.
“These people committing these crimes come from all over the world as well, so it’s basically something that we’re facing globally,” she said.
Mr. Miller said adult predators typically engage their targets first on social media spaces frequented by young people, such as Snapchat, before trying to pivot their conversations to other, more secretive, apps that make it harder to trace their identities.
With a report from The Canadian Press