For Carol Todd, news that another child has taken their life after a case of sexual extortion is a reminder of her own pain.
RCMP said Monday that a 12-year-old boy in Prince George, B.C., died by suicide last month after being a victim of sexual extortion and urged parents to talk to their kids about the potential risks of online activity.
The news came on what would have been the 27th birthday of Carol Todd’s daughter, Amanda, whose story spread around the globe after she died by suicide in 2012. Last year, a Dutch man was convicted of sexually extorting the B.C. teenager.
Todd has advocated for stronger communication between children and caregivers, and stronger legislation and enforcement targeting people seeking to exploit children.
“It’s heartbreaking to me to know that another family is going through a grieving process for a situation that could be prevented,” she said in an interview with CBC News Monday.
But she also said families and law enforcement are up against a complex set of forces that hide behind anonymous internet addresses and international borders.
“These predators … they’re more advanced than they were even when this was happening to Amanda,” she said.
Dominic LeBlanc, Canada’s public safety minister, said Tuesday that his government is still working on new legislation targeting online harm — something first promised in 2019 but which has yet to be tabled.
LeBlanc said it’s difficult to come up with Canadian laws that address companies and individuals located outside of the country’s border.
“It’s a complicated space to legislate in and on. But the urgency of moving, I think, is real,” LeBlanc said.
“That a 12-year-old boy in British Columbia takes his own life in such a horrible way should remind all of us that the online world can be very dangerous and vulnerable people can be preyed upon.”
In an interview from her office in Prince George, RCMP Cpl. Jennifer Cooper told CBC News that while police are investigating what led to the death of the 12-year-old, the nature of the case makes it unlikely any more information will be public in the near future as other jurisdictions and law enforcement agencies may be involved.
“These are not quick investigations to go through,” Cooper said. “We are still working on identifying a suspect in the matter … and [going] through determining where in the world this suspect may be.”
Police are urging parents to talk to their kids about the dangers of the internet and are hosting a forum for families in Prince George to help educate caregivers about the topic.
Signy Arnason of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection said the onus needs to be on government and tech companies, not individuals.
“Parents are really engaged. Parents understand and are terrified about the risks their kids face online,” Arnason said.
“We need these companies … to be held accountable for keeping their platforms safe, knowing that their kids are predominant users of them. We have got to start demanding, through government action, that these platforms are safer for kids to use.”
She said her organization recorded a 150 per cent rise in complaints about sexual extortion to its tip line last year, and without concrete action from companies to make their platforms safer, it’s unfair to expect parents to be able to fully protect their kids from the darker side of the internet.
In the meantime, officials are urging children and families to better understand the risks of internet sextortion, and to talk to each other about what they are seeing online.
It’s a message Todd endorses — and one she wishes she had heard more than a decade ago before she lost her own daughter.
“Knowing what I know now, I would have had deeper conversations with my child, in telling her you can come to mom or dad anytime.”
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