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Sextortion truths laid bare for teens, parents in North Van talks

Sexual predators are often not who you assume, says exploitation expert
Cyber safety presenter Tiana Sharifi talks to Grade 9 and Grade 10 students on the dangers of online sexual exploitation. | Paul McGrath / North Shore News

People who sexually exploit teens after grooming them online aren’t always those you might expect, says sexual exploitation expert Tiana Sharifi.

“Kids typically have an idea in their mind that predators are 60-year-old men who are lurking in their basements,” said Sharifi, who is behind the company presentations to students and parents this week in North Vancouver schools.

“Do we think that they magically turned predatory when they turn 60? No, these people were predatory their whole lives. And so what we see is that anybody can be predatory.”

Much more common, said Sharifi, is that the person preying on a teen is just five or 10 years older.

“The average age of these exploiters is only 24 years old,” she said.

Another myth is that girls are more likely to be victims. But boys are just as likely as girls to be victims of sexual extortion, said Sharifi.

In a recent rash of cases reported to the North Vancouver RCMP this fall, boys were the targets in most of the incidents.

Part of the reason for that is that girls are socialized to be more cautious, said Sharifi, while boys may not consider themselves vulnerable.

Typically, a teen boy assumes he’s having a private moment online with a girl, but that “girl” is actually someone playing a pre-recorded video, or a girl being forced to take part in the exchange. But after the boy is recorded in an intimate video or image, the extortion threats begin, said Sharifi.

These days, 90 per cent of sexual exploitation starts online. That makes protecting kids challenging for parents, whose teens are typically running circles around them with technology, said district principal Jeremy Church.

Often, problems that begin on social media also aren’t limited to a geographic area like the North Shore, making it more difficult for schools to intervene.

Teens on social media now have likely been exposed to people posting intimate or near-nude photos and videos so “there’s a normalization that takes place,” said Church.

Often teens don’t appreciate that they have little control over where an image ends up after it’s been shared, he said.

Regardless of what teens are doing online, it’s important for parents to keep communication open, said Sharifi. Fear of being revealed and shamed to friends and family is often the most powerful tool of those who target teens online.

Parents who want to take part in Wednesday evening’s online session can register online with the North Vancouver School District or find the link to the Microsoft Teams meeting on the school district's website.

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