As young people share intimate moments online, experts say conversations around sex need to change

WARNING: This article contains details of sexual extortion and may affect those who have experienced it or know someone affected by it.

Saleema Noon has been a sex educator in B.C. for 20 years. In her workshops, students can submit anonymous questions that she responds to with a frankness and honesty that is devoid of embarrassment.

While some of the more basic curiosities — like where babies come from — haven’t changed in a few decades, the students asking a certain kind of intimate question are getting younger and younger. 

“For the first time this year, I’ve had Grade 6s and 7s ask me anonymous questions about foot fetishes. And I know this is coming from sites like OnlyFans,” said Noon, referring to the paid-subscription site for user-generated content that’s known for explicit photos and videos.

“Parents need to recognize that our kids are being exposed to these things at younger ages, and our conversations need to be adjusted.”

B.C. educators and parents say they’re increasingly aware of just how much spaces on the internet have come to dominate the most intimate parts of young people’s lives — and the death of a boy in Prince George has been a stark reminder of the risks. 

In October, a 12-year-old boy in Prince George died by suicide. RCMP said he was a victim of online sextortion — when someone demands money or sexual favours by threatening to expose intimate images and videos of the victim, or other evidence of online sexual activity.

The case was made public by RCMP on the same day that Amanda Todd would have turned 27. Todd died by suicide in 2012 after being sextorted online by a Dutch man who has since been sentenced to 13 years in prison. 

“Here we are a decade later, and the tragedies are still happening,” said Noon.

“We need to find a way to get rid of some of this shame and guilt and stigma about something that can be experienced by anyone at any age. None of us are exempt from this.”

Twelve-year-old Carson Cleland of Prince George, B.C., took his own life in October after being sexually extorted online. His parents chose to make his story public in an effort to warn other caregivers and families about the dangers of online predators. (GoFundMe/Ryan Cleland)

Noon said parents and teachers may feel equipped with one kind of script to address teenage relationships. But over the past 10 years, the way young people and teenagers connect has fundamentally changed. And while teenagers are increasingly sophisticated in fostering meaningful connections online, that is also what makes them vulnerable.

“Their best friends can live across the world. Their boyfriend could be someone they’ve never met. And as a result they are so comfortable sharing intimate details of their life,” she said.

According to the latest data from Cybertip.ca, reports of sextortion in Canada have reached new highs, with 4,952 instances reported between June 2022 and the end of September 2023. 

Of the cases reported to Cybertip.ca in the last 15 months, the victims are between the ages of 14 and 24, and nearly 90 per cent are male.

‘They are insidious’

Alexandra Ford, an anti-trafficking advocate and survivor, said there are often misconceptions about how children are manipulated into sharing intimate photos.

“They don’t just approach with a cloak and dagger and an evil face and make demands of them. They get in there and they are insidious and they figure out what the needs of that child are and they will fill them,” she said.

“And once they fill those needs, they’re starting to create that trauma bond. And that’s turning up the heat slowly,” she said. 

Ford said there are practical things to warn your child about, including people online who suddenly devote all their attention to you — also known as “love bombing” — and anyone who asks to move a conversation from one platform, such as Instagram, to another, such as Snapchat, within the first 48 hours.

Ford and Noon both advocate for a wraparound approach to keeping teens safe, advocating for parents, schools, and governments to play a proactive role. 

Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc said his government is still working on new legislation targeting online harm — something first promised in 2019 but which has yet to be tabled.

In B.C., Attorney General Niki Sharma said on Thursday she has sent a letter to several social media and adult-content sites advising them to comply with the province’s new expedited legal process aimed at preventing people from posting intimate images of others online without their consent.

Ford said the legislation and conversations around intimate photos need to remove the element of shame that can be so isolating, and so devastating to kids. 

“That shame is not reserved for everyone who has ever sent a nude. It is reserved for the people who [victimize] others.”

If you or someone you know is struggling, here’s where to get help:

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