The Sextortion of Teenage Frailty: Everyday Characters or Evil Predators?

The Sextortion of Amanda Todd is a documentary created by CBC’s The Fifth Estate, highlighting the timeline of events leading up to the fourteen year-old’s tragic death. They weave in interviews from both of Amanda’s parents as well as a couple of her girlfriends but they also add another layer of validity to their arguments by inviting another victim of online sexortation to touch on her story. The two stories draw similar parallels: two young socially awkward teens seeking solace and attention from online “friends” through chatrooms and videos, the girls revel in the attention, the “friend” increasingly asks for more, the “friend” turns out to be a capper snapping pictures of the girls in vulnerable states and using those screenshots to blackmail them. A story that—unfortunately— has become a popular occurrence manifesting itself throughout the world and to teens— horrifyingly— even as young as nine years old.

The wild wild west that is the internet has become a tool for teens (not just girls) who do not find the attention or the affection they seek in their everyday lives. As the interviewer refers to the internet as an “endless popularity contest”, Amanda’s friends state that it’s a perfect vehicle because “you can edit yourself” into anyone you want to be. Everyone has experienced what it feels like to be a teenager longing for those idealistic images of popularity, beauty, and acceptance and so if you can mask your “flaws” online why wouldn’t you? When the interviewer asked the guest who had also been victimized online why she couldn’t be the person she was online in the real world, her response was: “Because no one wanted to be with that person.”. The frailty of finding individual importance and the desire to be loved has made the internet a very desirable asset for many people who struggle through their formative years (and sometimes later on).  However, this skewed digital identity that teenagers are creating for themselves is perpetuating this cycle of cyber abuse.

One aspect of this documentary that I really valued was how they talked about a specific online predator who had been caught blackmailing young women around Canada and the U.K. and was subsequently sentenced to three years in prison. However, this man was a twenty-one year old male who the investigator described as “more like a socially awkward teenager” who wouldn’t even look you in the eye when talking to you. Which poses the question: are these online predators just like the victims, everyday characters struggling to find themselves?  I might be playing the devil’s advocate right now but are (I’m not saying ALL online predators) some of these people on the other end of these sextortions seeking validation in their own lives? Do they know the consequences of the actions they’re performing or are they simply revealing in the power and influence they have over these victims?

Either way, this documentary not only boiled my blood but got my mind churning around a few very important questions: Is there a way to nip this in the bud? Is there a way— because we KNOW technology is used from a very young age– to education children on the importance of honourable digital identity and the importance of digital security? And is there a way to continue this education possibly using examples such as Amanda Todd to show how an innocent mistake can distort your life? A fellow ECMPer, Andrew Gerrand, wrote an amazing post entitled The Dual(e)l of a Teacher Parent after watching Sext Up Kids  (Sext up Kids found here) stated:

…Solutions start with allowing people to have real conversations to kids about this hyper sexualized digital world that has filtered into the physical world.

What a novel idea. This problem that has manifested itself in the form of sextortion, I believe, stems from a lack of knowledge on the grave consequences of assuming an unprotected AND unauthentic digital identity. Carol Todd, Amanda’s mother, had said the RCMP had responded to her information regarding predators still attacking Amanda on these websites to which the RCMP replied: “If she does not take steps to protect herself online— we cannot help.”.  They were infuriated with their seemingly apparent apathy however, I think that their words hold merit. If the sites she had been visiting resulted in her video being capped why was she a) allowed to visit those sites continually after the event, b) want to revisit those sites and c) not taking steps to protect herself rather than continue to poke at the bear.

Ultimately what I’m getting at here is that as educators/educators-to-be I think that opening up those “real conversations” regarding safe digital identities, the idea of sextortion/cappers and the consequences of online activities need to be addressed. My question to you is how do you see this playing out in real life? How can we get our schools on board with beginning this type of education sooner? How do we get the parents on board with breeching these tough subjects— because like Andrew said, not all parents will be too keen on talking about these more risqué subjects.

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7 thoughts on “The Sextortion of Teenage Frailty: Everyday Characters or Evil Predators?

  1. Hey Gillian,

    Thanks for the thoughtful post! I also watched this documentary and am also blogging about it right now, so it’s helpful to read your thoughts. I like how you identified the importance of educating students about digital citizenship!

    I think in order to get parent involvement/support, we have to be real with them about how much of an issue this is. We can provide them with resources and stats about sexting and the pressures teens face to send or share explicit photos/videos online. I could see it being a tricky subject for parents to bring up, but I think if they realize how prevalent it is and how potentially dangerous it can be, they will take on the responsibility of having those conversations with their kids. We can also support that process by teaching students about digital citizenship so they know the implications and dangers of those behaviours. It’s all about normalizing the conversation rather than having it be the “elephant in the room.”

    One thing I wonder about is your comment that the RCMP had merit in telling Amanda to just avoid those sites. I think the RCMP was being apathetic and I think telling Amanda to protect herself was a form of victim blaming. I don’t think it’s realistic for us to ask young people to stay offline when their lives are so intertwined in online spaces! The RCMP had a responsibility to address the capper’s actions; that responsibility should not have been placed on Amanda’s shoulders. I think both Amanda and her parents needed more support in dealing with the blackmail and the online threats she was receiving. What do you think?

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    • Hey Raquel, can always count on you for a great comment– thanks! I agree that it’s all about removing the elephant from the room, not unlike people like you advocating for removing the stigma against mental illness, removing the “taboo” around these topics could really benefit a lot of people.

      I should have probably reworded that section a bit, but I was more gearing towards the fact that I found it odd that even AFTER all of this sextoration, she was still visiting these sites, still having conversations/webcamming with people, etc. I agree that the apathetic nature from the RCMP was alarming and like her mother said, “No one anticipated the outcome” but after her suicide the “case finally became a priority”. I defiantly do not condone that kind of attitude from the RCMP and agree that her parents needed more support during this whole fiasco. This was just a really weird– and also fairly obvious– first step that wasn’t taken by this family. I don’t want to come down too hard on them but I thought not having their daughter STOP using those sites seemed super counterintuitive to their situation. I agree the RCMP should have taken this case more seriously (especially because the mother repeatedly sent them blackmail letters) but I believe they weren’t wrong in asking Amanda to take precautions to protecting herself online– which seeming didn’t happen.

      Which leads into the whole discussion about educating people properly on digital citizenship– parents included! 🙂

      Hope that clarified my intent a little for you!

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    • I agree Raquel that the RCMP dropped the ball here but I also think that this example shows how much further we need to go as educators, parents, law enforcement and especially the legal system. The politics and the time that it takes the political machine to get moving to make laws that allow RCMP or police to get training/ability to criminally charge people for online offences moves at dialup speed in comparison to the 4G network that the capper operates in. When we teach anti-bullying strategies to students we promote ideas like how to avoid situations where you are being targeted until the bullying has been dealt with. If you talk to an addict they will tell you that avoiding places they used and people they used with as key to relapse prevention. I am not trying to say the police did everything they could or that I am blaming Amanda for putting herself at risk when the focus needs to be on the perpetrator of the crime. I just feel that in this situation the law enforcement did what it did because they have training on how to deal with domestic abuse or an armed robbery, but online predators was an area they did not.
      As technology continues to be at the forefront of making educating more effective, more accessible, more fun, more inclusive, more adaptive and in some cases more dangerous we as teachers will be allowed the tools to prepare students for the dangers in the form of prevention. While law enforcement will be provided the tools to assist victims and pursue their perpetrators by being properly trained and have laws that allow for it.

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  3. Thank you for this post Gillian. I always appreciate the way you are able to articulate your ideas. I was able to watch this documentary in my ECS 301 class with Katia and vividly remember thinking the the same frustration with the parenting that Philip speaks about in his comment. Not being a parent myself, I do not know if I have the right to criticize parenting. However, I remember feeling as if the parents didn’t care for the well being of Amanda because it seemed (as far as the documentary presented) that the parents didn’t take the appropriate action to intervene. Obviously there is a lot of underlying issues and there are a lot of complexities to take into account. In relation to the conversations taking place in ECMP this week, I wonder if the parents appeared as though they didn’t take action stemmed from the fact that they did not have the proper knowledge to know what to do. The same way we, as educators, are confused with how to teach towards this subject.

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    • Thanks Ryan, it’s good to know I”m getting my ideas across! I definitely agree with you on that one, that the parents of these teens are probably just as lost as we are. All the more reason to advocate/ignite the conversations pertaining to such issues. I like how you said you perhaps don’t have the right to judge considering you’re not a parent and sometimes I feel the same way but, I think the best thing (that may be insensitive) to do is take tragedies such as Amanda Todd’s story in order to work towards a better future. Hindsight is definitely 20/20 and parenting a child through a divorce is not an easy thing to agree upon BUT in the same regard it’s important to look at the safety and best interest of the child. There was for sure a lot of questions after watching the documentary and I think a lot of them are difficult to answer because of the choices the parents made. But again, it’s difficult to understand the situation as a second party. However, I think the documentary did it’s purpose in initiating conversation on the subject of sextortion, online indulgence and digital identities. Thanks for the comment, I really appreciate you’re involvement on my blog as of late! 🙂

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