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In our opinion: Sextortion is dangerous, but there's hope in love-filled environments

Recent reporting from the Deseret News powerfully illuminated the danger of "sextortion," a form of criminal exploitation that preys on shame. The next step is for people to continue speaking openly about this problem in homes, schools and communities, to both ensure children are shielded from the practice and that these spaces feel safe — and are safe — for children to admit mistakes and seek help.

Sextortion is one of the darkest forms of digital crime, the most extreme warping of the connection many seek when using social media. It describes the increasingly common problem of criminals using fake online profiles to lure children into sexual conversations. They then weaponize these messages and photos, threatening to share them with friends and family unless they are wired large sums of money.

What often starts as a benign interaction turns dangerous and, in the worst cases, deadly. Thanks to the courage and vulnerability of the Tobler family of Farmington, the community has a measure of awareness to this problem.

The Toblers shared the story of the sextortion their son, Tevan, tragically endured before ending his own life. The story has since been viewed more than half a million times. Clicks, however, do not represent the change that is needed on this issue. To honor Tevan and the many youths who have lost their lives to this crime, parents and communities must find ways to convert awareness into meaningful action.

Everyone must recognize that the issue goes beyond the heartbreaking exploitation of children. Sextortion also is an increasingly prevalent form of intimate partner violence and a form of revenge often taken by ex-partners. Like other forms of sexual exploitation and violence, it is more likely to occur between people who know each other than between complete strangers.

Steps exist that can be taken to protect vulnerable internet users from exploitation. Leading public health systems, alongside doctors and internet safety experts, have developed a set of practical measures that can be used by parents and schools to help youth identify the problem before it's too late.

They recommend speaking with kids often and openly about warning signs, specifically being on guard for expedited intimacy from strangers online. They also tell parents to talk to kids about how to spot discrepancies between public profiles and private communications.

Finally, they say that if people start asking for money or say they need help — before or after intimate communications are shared — to stop all communication, change passwords and report the problem to a trusted parent, mentor or guardian.

Most importantly, however, is creating a love-filled environment in which those uncomfortable conversations can occur. Having frank talks with children about this issue — and the possibility that it could affect them — will give them the tools they need to handle it and seek support should the moment arise. The challenge for all is to be the vocal support needed now by victims of this crime, hopefully preempting tragedy in the future.