Children across the world, some as young as 8 years old and many in the U.S., were blackmailed into performing sexual acts online and even forced into self-harming, British police said today.
Over the past two years, at least 424 children have become victims of the blackmail, leading to seven people taking their own lives, according to new research published today by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), a police agency in the United Kingdom.
"They've got some of these teenagers to cut themselves with knives, they've got some of these teenagers to write on their naked bodies quite degrading, quite belittling messages," CEOP Deputy Chief Executive Andy Baker told ABCNews.com in an interview.
In some cases, the perpetrators made their victims refer to themselves as slaves, he said.
The number of Americans caught up in this is, "well into double figures," Baker said, noting that the 12 criminal networks that the agency tracked tended to focus on English-speaking countries.
"The offenders have targeted English-speaking countries in particular and those that have a culture whereby children, young people, have ready access to the Internet, smart phones and other technology that will allow perpetrators to contact them," Baker said.
In most instances, children are tricked into posting compromising messages and pictures by online predators who lure them into fictitious relationships, pretending to be of a similar age and often, the opposite gender, according to the report. Once the victim has sent embarrassing pictures, the perpetrators then use them as blackmail, threatening to send the exchanges to their friends and family if they don't do as they're told.
"These types of situations snowball and the child often doesn't know a way out," said Michelle Collins, vice president of the Exploited Children Division at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), based in Alexandria, Va.
NCMEC, which works closely with CEOP, sees cases of online sexual abuse in America on a weekly basis, Collins said, noting that many of the children never report abuse because of the fear of embarrassment. The predators play on this fear, she said. "It gives them the leverage to exploit the child further."
The Internet has been used by online predators for over 20 years but their methods have evolved, Baker said. By using blackmail, abusers can exert rapid control of their victims. In one case, within four minutes of meeting an abuser online, a victim said, "You make me feel like I want to kill myself," Baker recalled, referring to a case he had reviewed. "It's that quick."
"The online world is part and parcel of everyday life now and we will never put the genie back in the bottle," said John Cameron, head of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) helpline in the U.K., in response to the CEOP report.
"But young people must remember that the online world is the real world," he said in his statement. "Pictures can be distributed to thousands of people in seconds and can never be fully deleted."
Baker concedes that there are dark corners on the Internet but that the best advice he can give to parents is to not be afraid to discuss these issues with their children.
"Don't make this a taboo subject," he said.