WARNING: This is a story about a boy who died by suicide. There is a list of resources for anyone in crisis at the bottom of the article.
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.
Mounties in Prince George issued a statement Monday, more than six weeks after the boy died, to warn parents about the risks youth face on the internet.
The statement said officers went to the boy’s home on Oct. 12 and found him with a gunshot wound. Their investigation later determined he killed himself as a result of online sextortion.
Sextortion is a form of blackmail in which threats are made to reveal a person's online sexual behaviour, such as photos or videos obtained deceptively.
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 said. “Talk to your kids about predators and all this stuff that’s happening and the safety online.”
The case is not isolated, police say.
RCMP spokeswoman Cpl. Jennifer Cooper said the practice of online predators extorting people for money or sexual favours is on the rise.
"Anywhere that youth have access to social media, this is happening," Cooper said in an interview.
Many of the victims of sextortion are young males. 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.
The Prince George detachment said in its statement it had received 62 reports of online sextortion so far this year, surpassing the 56 they had last year.
"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," Cooper said.
She 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," she added.
Cooper said victims of sextortion are advised to stop all communication with their blackmailer right away, not give in to their demands, deactivate the online communication account and — most importantly — reach out for help.
"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."
Signy Arnason, associate executive director of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, said Carson's death stuck her as “absolutely devastating” and “a total nightmare” for the boy's parents, who were not to blame.
She said it is social media companies and not parents bear the greatest responsibility for ensuring children are safe online.
"What we, in fact, need to be talking about are these platforms that are released onto market that are not safe. And they're completely unregulated," she said, pointing out that at 12 years old, Carson was younger than Snapchat's minimum age of 13.
She added: “We have completely failed and abandoned children online and we need some guardrails around these platforms when they're released to the market."
In March, the B.C. government passed the Intimate Images Protection Act, creating new legal mechanisms to stop the non-consensual online distribution of intimate images.
In a letter sent in May to companies including Twitter, Meta, OnlyFans and Pornhub, Attorney General Niki Sharma said they could be required to delete, de-index or destroy such images, or provide information needed to help with the removal.
Sharma said Monday that the province intends to launch an online platform in January that will allow people to report if their intimate images are being distributed without their consent. She said the victim can also get an order telling the perpetrator to stop distributing the images and for the online platforms to take it down.
"The goal is to be quick, and to have also support for that person as they're going through this," she said in an interview Monday.
She called the boy's death "terrible" and offered her condolences to his family.
"I just want to send a message to young people that are out there (and who) may be in a similar circumstance, please don't suffer in silence, don't suffer and feel like you're ashamed. Come forward, speak to a trusted adult," she said.
Last month, royal assent was granted for a federal bill that allows those convicted of the non-consensual sharing of intimate images and extortion to be added to the national sex offender database.
Sharma applauded the move.
"I think it needs to be treated like a sexual offence, especially with the harm that's done to people related to that," she said. "I also think that we all need to step up our game and co-ordinate our actions when it comes to making sure that we are protecting citizens from online harms."
But Wayne MacKay, a professor emeritus at Dalhousie University's Schulich School of Law, said policing the internet is difficult and by the time authorities make a criminal charge, tragedy can already have happened.
MacKay said education is more important, although such conversations are difficult.
“I think, on these matters, that really a trusted adult is a key person," he said.
"The parent being the first and most obvious trusted adult, then perhaps teachers and principals or others in their lives, older brothers and sisters … it's really increasingly important to have children discuss these things because they're happening way too often,” said MacKay.
One of the most prominent cases of sextortion in Canada was that of Amanda Todd, a 15-year-old B.C. girl who killed herself in 2012 after posting a video using flash cards to describe being tormented by a cyberbully.
Her mother, Carol Todd, said the government needs to step in to regulate the online world for youth, but parents still need to have conversations with children.
"At the same time, adults need to know what is happening in the online spaces and have the hard conversations with their children," Todd said in an email.
Amanda's 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.
— By Brieanna Charlebois and Nono Shen in Vancouver
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 27, 2023.
Here is a list of some resources that are available to you or anyone else who might be in crisis.
Canada Suicide Prevention Helpline (1-833-456-4566)
Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (1-800-463-2338)
Crisis Services Canada (1-833-456-4566 or text 45645)
Kids Help Phone (1-800-668-6868)
If you need immediate assistance call 911 or go to the nearest hospital.