Question: I’ve heard that sextortion is more common than previously realized. Do you have any educational information or any resources for clinicians or parents?


Answer: This is certainly an important topic. Sextortion is threatening to expose sexually explicit images of a person if they refuse demands for more images, money, or other items/actions. While seemingly similar, sextortion should not be confused with other forms of online sexual exploitation including revenge porn. With revenge porn, the perpetrator publicly exposes sexually explicit images of a person to humiliate them. In a sextortion situation, however, the threats are often private, and the intent is to extort or force the victim to give something up (more images, money, etc). 

The National Center on Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) and the FBI have both reported a recent rise in reports of online sextortion with youth victims, especially financial sextortion that targets adolescent males. Published research has mixed findings regarding rates of sextortion victimization, with some studies finding higher prevalence of sextortion victimization among females and some finding higher rates among males. A nationally representative online survey of 18–28-year-olds (N=2,639) found that 3.5% of participants had experienced online sexual extortion before the age of 18 (Finkelhor & Turner, 2022). In this study, prevalence of victimization was 1.5% for males and 5.5% for females. In a different nationally representative online survey of middle and high school students, 5% of students said they were a victim of sextortion, and 3% of students said they had threatened to share an explicit image that another person had shared with them (Patchin & Hinduja, 2020). In this study, males were more likely to have experienced sextortion as both a victim and an offender. When asked who threatened to expose their image, about 32% of participants said it was their boyfriend or girlfriend. Only 4.3% of males and 6.1% of females said the perpetrator was someone online that they didn’t know. 

Given the delayed nature of research publications, available literature may not yet reflect the most recent prevalence. Existing literature on prevalence of sextortion among adolescents used survey measures with varying prevalence rates likely because these survey studies used different questions to assess sextortion, and some only considered adult perpetrators. It is important to keep in mind that youth can also be perpetrators of sextortion. Sextortion perpetrators can be people that victims already know; Wolak et al (2018) found that 59% of youth sextortion victims also knew their perpetrator offline.  

Understanding the Five Phases of a Sextortion Case 

In a qualitative analysis of crime scripts from news and court documents about sextortion cases involving minors (n=130 cases), O’Malley et al (2023) identified five phases of perpetration that can be used to help understand and identify specific events in a sextortion case. The five phases include: 

  1. Preparation: The perpetrator may catfish, create false identities, mask their location, and use apps which generate alternate phone numbers to message potential victims.
  2. Entry: Many perpetrators enter online communities where youth spend time and impersonate a member of that community, for example friending multiple youth from the same school or posing as a “pro-anorexia coach” in a chat room focused on eating disorder behaviors.
  3. Procuring initial images & info: Perpetrators use various methods to trick youth into sending explicit images, including creating a false romantic relationship or finding information about the victim online (address, school) and using that publicly available info to blackmail the victim into sending content.
  4. Crime commission: Once images are obtained, the perpetrator initiates additional crimes including demanding more images, demanding money, or coercing the victim into meeting up in real life to assault them, or coercing the victim into assaulting another to create additional sexual abuse material. 
  5. Exit: Outcomes can vary. This study only addressed outcomes where law enforcement eventually became involved. Sometimes, victims tell a parent or adult at school, and sometimes images are released. Many incidences of sextortion are not reported. 

Understanding the distinct phases of sextortion can help trusted adults identify red flags at each stage. These phases can also be used in education and prevention programs, emphasizing what actions youth could take in each of these scenarios. Sometimes an individual may not identify that they are a victim of sextortion in phase 1 or 2 but they may notice red flags at later stages. 

Recommendations for Clinicians 
  • Consult Digital sextortion: Internet predators and pediatric interventions, an opinion piece by Hong et al (2020) published in Pediatrics with recommendations for clinicians. Tips include: 
    • Utilizing the HEADSS (Home, Education, Activities, Drug Use and Abuse, Sexual Behavior, Suicidality & Depression) assessment which includes questions addressing sextortion to screen patients during well-check visits.  
    • For patients and families that have experienced sextortion, counseling that emphasizes not blaming the child, reducing guilt and shame. This is especially important for boys who are less likely to disclose sextortion experiences to their parents to get help (Patchin & Hinduja, 2020)
General Resources on Sextortion 
  • The Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force offers a one-page document that describes situations where sextortion might occur in an example-based way with scenarios that the victim may expect to encounter and the actual reality of sextortion.  
Resources for Parents 
  • My Life My Choice, an organization focused on fighting against sexual exploitation of youth, provides guides for understanding commercial sexual exploitation of children geared towards youth and parents. They also offer prevention methods, curriculum-based learning, and victim empowerment resources.  
  • The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children created a video series called Into the Cloud for children under 10 to learn about internet safety. Season 2 of this series focuses on online exploitation and reporting inappropriate content. This organization also has modules for Middle and High School students to learn about sextortion through victims sharing their stories and questions to discuss after the video. The videos are about 5 to 6 minutes long.  
  • THORN, an organization co-founded by Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore dedicated to ending online sexual abuse and exploitation, has tips for parents on how to have conversations with their children to discuss online safety related to sextortion. They also have a step-by-step guide on important steps to take such as reporting and listening unconditionally and a helpline number for parents to reach out to in order to seek advice or more information.  
  • While slightly dated, Common Sense Media provides factual information to answer popular concerns around online predators for parents as well as a more recent guide on how to talk to teens about online predators
Sextortion Victim Resources  
  • Take It Down is an organization that helps remove any types of explicit pictures from the internet from individuals under 18. 
  • Internet Crimes Against Children has some victim resources on how to take action if one becomes a victim. 





Age: 10-24  

Topics: Sextortion, sexual exploitation, online exploitation 

Role: Clinician 

Last Updated



American Academy of Pediatrics