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Blaze News investigates: Online predators are using artificial intelligence to force children into sextortion scams, says digital expert
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Blaze News investigates: Online predators are using artificial intelligence to force children into sextortion scams, says digital expert

Yaron Litwin outlined the harms of social media and how parents can protect their children.

The threat from online predators targeting children has only increased because of the emergence of artificial intelligence, according to a digital safety expert.

Social media use has exploded as smartphones get better and faster, but so have the dangers of addiction, overexposure, and threats from online predators.

'Many victims, which have included minors, are unaware their images were copied, manipulated, and circulated.'

Blaze Media spoke to digital safety expert Yaron Litwin about the threat to children from online predators that has led to lethal consequences.

Litwin outlined three kinds of threats that parents should beware when allowing their children access to smartphones and social media.

"There are many threats that one might experience online and this includes three things that we look at: how much screen time the children are on, what kind of content they’re potentially looking at, and who’s on the other end of that screen," said Litwin.

"First of all, this is all addictive, this is about brain chemicals. People are not really in control of these interactions, this is all dopamine-induced activity. So the social media, the scrolling, all the platforms use millions in place to develop these super-sophisticated super-addictive platforms," he explained.

"At the the macro level, the danger involves the mental health of our children. We’re seeing an all-time high in teen depression, kid depression, and there’s a lot of great research pointing all this back to social media," Litwin added. "But I would say it’s a combination of social media, the amount of time kids are on their phones, and then the worst is often times these predators."

Litwin outlined one of the most extreme types of sextortion where the scammer uses made-up images to force children to send them lewd images and videos or simply demands money.

"These come in different flavors, it could be cyber-bullying, sextortion cases, where there’s been a number of situations where kids have committed suicide because of sextortion, being bribed for images that are not real. So there’s really a spectrum of issues, but it all boils down to this overall mental health," he continued.

'I got numerous calls and messages from my friends telling me that these nude images were going around.'

While some parents have warned children to never send explicit images of themselves online, not all realize the dangers of posting even the most benign images on social media.

The FBI warned about the malicious practice last year:

Malicious actors use content manipulation technologies and services to exploit photos and videos—typically captured from an individual's social media account, open internet, or requested from the victim—into sexually-themed images that appear true-to-life in likeness to a victim, then circulate them on social media, public forums, or pornographic websites. Many victims, which have included minors, are unaware their images were copied, manipulated, and circulated until it was brought to their attention by someone else. The photos are then sent directly to the victims by malicious actors for sextortion or harassment, or until it was self-discovered on the internet. Once circulated, victims can face significant challenges in preventing the continual sharing of the manipulated content or removal from the internet.

In one heinous incident, a 14-year-old Texas girl was humiliated by fake images created by a male classmate who had used photographs she had posted of herself clothed on Instagram.

Elliston Berry told Fox Business that her life was turned upside down after discovering the images were being spread on social media platforms including Snapchat and Instagram.

"I got numerous calls and messages from my friends telling me that these nude images were going around," she said.

Her mother recalled the horror she felt.

"She came in there showing me the pictures, and I was mortified and, as a mom, stunned. I mean, I couldn't protect my daughter," said Anna McAdams.

'It’s often very difficult to identify and see those signs.'

While Berry did the right thing and immediately told her mother, others targeted by sextortion schemes become entangled because they're too ashamed to come forward. Litwin offered advice on how parents can talk to their children to help them avoid these online scams.

"A lot of the dangerous behaviors are very hard to spot. It’s very difficult to really see the red flags. Of all the cases we’ve heard about, or are in the news, the parents are always shocked," he said.

"And so really communicating with the child, having these open conversations, explaining that if they come across something that they have a safe place to come to talk about with their parents," Litwin added. "And feel comfortable and safe to have those conversations and share what they’re seeing or what their friends are sharing."

He went on to say that parents also need to be looking for signs of general harm from children using smartphones and social media.

"If you see a child that is curled up with their phone and losing appetite or desire for doing anything that they loved to do in the past, that is definitely a sign for parents to look into," he said.

"If all they want to do is stay in bed, and use that as an excuse to stay on their phone," Litwin continued. "The challenge is that when things get a little more serious, it’s often very difficult to identify and see those signs."

One report found that 30% of teenagers who went online regularly admitted to being sexually solicited by people online. Of those, only 25% told a parent about the incident.

'There’s a lot of local, social pressure ... you don’t want your kid to be left out.'

Litwin said studies showed there has been an increase in teenagers suffering declines in mental health: "It ties back to typically that age when you get the first phone until early adulthood."

For many parents, it is difficult to limit their children's digital use after they get habituated into being online constantly. Some schools and communities don't help in that endeavor.

"There’s a lot of local, social pressure. Once there’s a certain amount of kids in the classroom with a phone, you don’t want your kid to be left out," he said. "I think it really depends on different communities. I believe that the overall guideline is that later is better, but typically you don’t want kids before eight or nine years old with a smartphone."

He went on to say that parents need to think about what guardrails to put in place in order to protect their child from online harm.

"Sometimes for parents it’s just for convenience so that they can connect with their child. But it really does come down to how can parents control that," Litwin added. "Just like when you get your first bike, you get a helmet. Getting that first phone is super exciting, but it really needs to come with a checklist for the parent of how to lay those ground rules in place."

While some technology is available to help parents, Litwin said the most important thing parents can do is open up lines of communication with their children and make them aware of the risks in the digital world.

"Every age has its own set of risks, but this is something that definitely needs to be communicated and talked about in the home, along with perhaps technology to help with screen time, or location, or filtering," he added.

One technological tool parents can use is Canopy, an app that uses AI and machine learning to help families block inappropriate content. Litwin is the chief marketing officer for the service that helps parents create a "customized internet experience" to minimize online harm.

"Parents feel disempowered, and they’re not aware that there are actually tools that they can use to help them navigate this digital age," he said.

'We’re seeing more and more of this trend of a desire to move away from it.'

Litwin offered another tactic that some young people are using to counteract digital harm: detoxing.

"We are seeing a trend in young adults and adults where people are catching themselves," he added.

"I think what is happening now is that people are actually thinking about how much time they’re actually spending on their phones. And it’s taking away from their social lives, they’re just scrolling aimlessly though Instagram or TikTok or YouTube," Litwin continued. "And so we’re seeing more and more of this trend of a desire to move away from it."

He said that Canopy can aid in this effort by limiting access to specific harmful apps.

"Because it’s so addictive, you really need to get the phone away from you. Or kind of force it to be turned off. We are seeing a need for screen-time management, but it’s not like what we’ve seen in the past where it’s just limiting time, but it’s about blocking out specific apps," Litwin explained.

"With kids it’s hard to talk to them about detoxing when you’re a teen because you don’t want to miss out and you want to know what’s happening every second," he added. "But we are seeing young adults trying to break away from this."

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Carlos Garcia

Carlos Garcia

Staff Writer

Carlos Garcia is a staff writer for Blaze News.