EDITOR’S NOTE: This story discusses suicide and distressing details.
Parents of a 12-year-old boy who killed himself last month after falling prey to online sextortion are urging others to talk to their kids to make sure they don’t also become victims of internet “predators.”
“They’re just, they’re not built for problems like this. They’re not built for adult problems in a kid’s world,” Carson Cleland’s father, Ryan Cleland, told CKPG, a television station in Prince George, B.C.
Prince George RCMP is also asking parents and caregivers to have open and honest conversations with their youth about the dangers of sextortion in the wake of the tragic death.
On Thursday, October 12, 2023, Prince George RCMP attended a local residence in response to a 12-year-old youth suffering from a gunshot wound. The investigation revealed the youth took his own life in response to online sextortion, stated RCMP Cpl. Jennifer Cooper, media relations officer for the Prince George RCMP.
“We are calling for parents and caregivers to be honest with their youth about the dangers of online activity, especially if they are engaging in chats with people they don’t know in real life,” noted the release. “While not every case of online sextortion will end in tragedy, the consequences of this kind of activity can follow a youth for their entire life, which needs to be something we talk about openly with our kids.”
Carson’s family said he often used the social media platform Snapchat to communicate with others.
His mother, Nicola Smith, called for more parental involvement in children’s internet use.
“Be more active with your kids, even if you are active, which we were,” she told CKPG. “Talk to your kids about predators and all this stuff that’s happening and the safety online.”
This case was not isolated, police say.
Reports of sextortion, the practice of extorting money or sexual favors from someone by threatening to reveal evidence of their online sexual activity, rise every year in Prince George, a northern community with a population of about 74,000 people. Sextortion is most prevalent in youth between the ages of 13 and 18. Thus far in 2023, Prince George RCMP has received 62 reports of online sextortion, already surpassing the 56 reports received in 2022.
If you are the victim of sextortion, Cooper said it is important that you stop all communication immediately with that person and do not give in to their demands.
“Deactivate the accounts that you are using to communicate with that person and, most importantly, reach out for help and report it. Call your local police and contact NeedHelpNow.ca and Cybertip.ca for support.”
This investigation is ongoing as police officers continue their efforts to identify a suspect. Cooper said it can be “very resource intensive” for police to figure out which country the perpetrator is operating from.
“These people committing these crimes come from all over the world as well, so it’s basically something that we’re facing globally,” she said. “They take lots of steps to protect their own identities while defrauding others of theirs, so that’s kind of the ironic part of it all.”
“These are con artists and they’re predators, and they’re only out for financial gain for themselves. We need to be really, really sure that our kids know what kind of dangers are out there and what they can expect to encounter if they’re going online.”
Many of the victims of sextortion are male. A review of 322 cases sent to the national sexual abuse tip line Cybertip.ca in July last year found that 92 per cent of cases in which the gender of the victim was known involved boys or young men.
One of the most prominent cases of sextortion in Canada was that of Amanda Todd, a B.C. 15-year-old who killed herself in 2012 after posting a video using flash cards to describe being tormented by a cyberbully.
Her blackmailer, Dutch national Aydin Coban, was sentenced to 13 years in prison after a Canadian trial but his sentence will be served in the Netherlands, where a decision about how to convert the sentence hasn’t yet occurred.
Coban was convicted of possession of child pornography, extortion, criminal harassment and communicating with a young person to commit a sexual offence.
Todd’s case contributed to the introduction of new legislation promising to protect British Columbians against the sharing of intimate images without their consent.
Attorney-General Niki Sharma, who tabled the legislation in the spring, said her heart goes out to family, now suffering the loss of a life too soon.
“I’m also angry that there are people out there that are preying on our young people in this province and across the world,” Sharma said.
Starting in January, a trauma-informed process with low barriers will help children or adults come forward if somebody is distributing images without their consent and have perpetrators held accountable, she said.
She added that sextortion is not only rampant in British Columbia, but also around the world. “We are seeing a lot of young people subjected to the type of sextortion that we’ve heard of in so many tragic cases.”
She said it is really important for children to know that they are not alone. “Please go to a trusted adult, talk to somebody about it, seek out help,” she said. “We need to get the word out, so people can get help if they need it.”
— with files from Wolfgang Depner and the Williams Lake Tribune