This article addresses the issue of suicide. If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or dial 988 for the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.
Braden Markus, 15, had what his mother said was an "amazing weekend of football" on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2021. To celebrate, the Ohio teen ordered his favorite food, then "spent the rest of the night doing homework, playing Xbox with his cousins and sleeping," his mom wrote in a Facebook post.
"Typical life of a teenager," Jennifer Argiro-Markus, Braden's mom, added.
Less than 24 hours later, Braden died by suicide. His family believes he was a victim of cyber "sextortion." Local authorities have opened a criminal investigation into the case.
'I am only 15, why are you doing this to me?'
At 11:01 a.m. the next morning, after Braden started working on his driver's education test and more school work, his mom said a "cyber bully friended" him on Instagram, "posing as a high school girl."
After five minutes of messaging back and forth, Argiro-Markus wrote that the person asked Braden to "message using Google Hangout." Braden agreed, but the person he was chatting with was not who they claimed to be.
"Things went south within 30 minutes," his mom wrote on Facebook.
The online predator sent her son pictures, continuing to claim to be the girl in the photographs. The person then spent the next five minutes "hounding" Braden to send a picture, who his mom wrote repeatedly said no, citing his age.
The Monster knew exactly what to say and what to post to get into a 15-year-old’s brain
"The hacker kept the pressure up," Braden's mom wrote. "If B got off the account, the hacker would hound him on his Instagram messenger. Eventually, B caved and sent a picture. The Monster knew exactly what to say and what to post to get into a 15-year-old's brain."
Once the hacker had a picture of Braden, Argiro-Markus said her son was threatened and told to pay the predator $1,800 or "else the monster" was going to release it among other pictures the hacker took from Braden's Instagram account.
"The messages go on and on for 27 minutes," she wrote. "The last five minutes of B's life, he said over and over again, 'I am only 15, why are you doing this to me? I am only 15, you will ruin my life.' It is a thread that in a way I wish I never read, but here we are." (In her post, Argiro-Markus explained she had to wait 10 months to get a court order to have Apple unlock her son’s phone so she could see what happened.)
At 11:28 a.m., Braden died by suicide.
"He was the kid that was literally loved by everyone, family, friends, teachers you name it," Argiro-Markus told TODAY Parents. "His smile lit up a room wherever he went. He enjoyed sports, Xbox with his cousins and pranks with his buddies."
Now, Argiro-Markus is warning parents of the dangers of online sexploitation and honoring her son's memory with the Braden Markus Memorial Scholarship Fund.
"Make sure you talk to your kids about online cyber crimes. Make sure you tell them over and over that when they make a mistake to come to you, nothing is worth their lives," the mom wrote on Facebook. "We can’t help our kids if we don’t speak up, and warn them, and try to stop these predators, and you can’t warn them unless you know about it."
What is online or cyber sextortion?
"Sextortion is a term that is being used in recent years to describe a type of extortion in which a predator will use a sexually explicit image or video of another person in order to either engage with them in a sexual or exploitive relationship online or offline, or to exploit money from their victims," Donna Hughes, president and CEO of Enough is Enough, a non-profit organization dedicated to preventing the internet-enabled exploitation of children, told TODAY.
"Really, it's a form of online blackmail," she added.
Since 2016, the CyberTipline has received 262,573 reports of online enticement, including acts of sextortion, according to a report from the National Center for Missing or Exploited Children.
"It can happen to anyone at any time," Hughes explained. "Kids are getting really drawn into these traps by people who either want to sexually exploit them or get money from them."
How online predators groom their victims
Hughes said that online forums that allow people to sign up and use platforms anonymous have made it easier for predators to pose as seemingly harmless individuals while also making it easier for them to tailor their online personality to the likes and desires of their victims.
"They're going to get a child to trust them by appealing to the child's interest," Hughes explained. "I once interviewed a sexual predator and convicted sex offender for three hours in a high security prison in Virginia. I asked him, 'How did you get kids to trust you?' He told me: 'I would be whoever they wanted me to be.'"
Liz Repking, founder and senior cyber safety expert at Cyber Safety Counseling, an internet safety consulting and education company, said once a predator earns a child's trust they can begin to build and establish a relationship.
"Once there's emotions involved, the decision making of the teenager just goes out the window," Repking told TODAY. "What's interesting is that it plays on very normal human dynamics — when our emotions get involved we make poor decisions. That's what predators play on."
I asked him, ‘How did you get kids to trust you?’ He told me: ‘I would be whoever they wanted me to be.’
Donna Hughes, president and CEO of Enough is Enough
A reported 4 in 10 minors said they have been approached online by someone they believe was attempting “to befriend and manipulate” them, according to one April 2022 online grooming report from Thorn, an international anti-human trafficking organization, and in partnership with Benenson Strategy Group, a market research firm.
When a predator is at the point where they believe they can ask for an image and receive one, they are now in a position of power.
"They play heavily on two emotions that are so hard to manage, which are shame and fear," she added. "Once that child gives up that picture and realizes they've been duped, there's the shame of sending a naked picture and the fear of how it will impact them — i.e., my parents are going to kill me; this could hurt my life forever; all of that. The shame and the fear create confusion, the kids don't know what to do and they take their lives."
How parents can protect their teens from sextortion
While there are a number of parental controls and other software that can help parents protect and monitor their children's online behavior, Repking cautions parents not to solely rely on those guardrails.
"I tell parents it's not a tech issue, it's a parenting issue. And you cannot outsource parenting to software," Repking added. "You can use software if you need to to help you parent, but the risk to putting a bunch of controls on is that you, as a parent, back off."
I tell parents it’s not a tech issue, it’s a parenting issue. And you cannot outsource parenting to software.
Liz Repking, founder of Cyber Safety Counseling
In addition to utilizing certain parental controls, both Repking and Hughes encourage parents to be honest with their children — in age-appropriate ways — about the dangers of the internet, as well as deepen their own knowledge about the devices and online platforms their children are using.
"If I had a teenage son right now, I would be printing out these articles about these young boys and showing them to my child," Repking said. "Teenagers tend to discount their parents — that we're fear mongrels and that 'we don't really get it.' I often advise parents use objective third party information, like articles, where you can start a dialogue."
Hughes added that if a parent does not feel as if their child is old enough to have those conversations, "then, parent, they're not old enough for a device."
Online Predator Warning Signs
- Your child becomes secretive about their online activities.
- Your child receives phone calls, mail, gifts or packages from people you don't know.
- Your child spends more and more time online and/or panics when they can't be online.
- Your child withdrawals from family and friends.
- Your child begins to hide or quickly turn off devices when others are in the room.
In addition to arming children with age-appropriate information and looking for warning signs, Repking said parents need to let their children know that there is always an "exit strategy" should they end up sharing explicit pictures or videos online.
"That's the most important thing — letting your child know you won't be mad; their lives won't be ruined; you'll be there to help them," she said. "Yes, it gives them an out and ensures their safety, but emotionally it's a powerful way of saying: 'I'm here. I care, and I'm here for you. I'm supporting you. I love you, and I will always keep you safe.'"
Lastly, Hughes encourages every parent to realize this can happen to any child at any time.
"No child is immune from online sexual exploitation," she said. "Even yours."
If you're a parent looking for online resources to better understand about and protect your child from online predators and cyber sextortion, you can visit InternetSafety101.org for more information.