Emmaleigh Welka, an outreach coordinator for the Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children Taskforce, speaks to a crowd at Ashland High School on Tuesday, Sept. 12.
Emmaleigh Welka, an outreach coordinator for the Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children Taskforce, speaks to a crowd at Ashland High School on Tuesday, Sept. 12. Credit: Dillon Carr

ASHLAND — How do we keep children safe from sexual harm they might encounter online?

This was the central question considered among around 20 people Tuesday at Ashland High School’s Archer Auditorium.

Emmaleigh Welka with the Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force spoke to parents, grandparents, pastors and educators during a presentation about the dangers of sextortion and sexting. 

Welka cited data from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) that showed an ever increasing amount of cybertips — the online version of 911 for reporting illicit, online sexual actvity — since 2015. 

In 2015, there were 3,244 tips reported. In 2022, that number jumped to 16,659. 

“What these numbers illustrate in the larger sense is how big of a problem this is becoming,” Welka said.

These crimes aren’t happening in the dark corners of the web, Welka warned. She pointed to another dataset that broke down where those tips originated. The top three sites were Google, Facebook and Snapchat.

There are a number of ways kids get wrapped up in sexual exploitation, Welka said. She said 87% of ICAC cases involve child exploitation material shared through photos and videos online.

What is sextortion?

Another growing issue, Welka shared, is sextortion — a form of exploitation where coercion is used to acquire sexual content, money or sexual intercourse.

“We’re seeing a massive increase in these types of cases,” she said, adding the task force’s largest victim pool currently are males between the ages of 14 and 18. 

Welka shared a case that involved a teenage boy victimized by a predator who posed as a teenage girl. The offender sent the boy a video of a nude girl and asked for nude photos and videos of the boy. 

When the boy complied, the offender demanded $6,000 and threatened to “ruin his life” if he didn’t pay. After 20 hours of the exchanges, the boy took his own life.

“I don’t show you this to scare you. I essentially show you to just show you how big of an issue this is becoming. Kids aren’t prepared to deal with this type of issue by themselves,” she said. 

What to do?

Welka encouraged parents to establish boundaries for their children’s online use.

She showed them ways to change privacy settings on apps like Instagram and Snapchat.

She encouraged parents to install apps that monitor minors’ activities online. 

“It’s really up to you guys to take the initiative and figure (apps children are using) out before, unfortunately, they figure them out themselves,” Welka said. 

To report online abuse, visit NCMEC’s CyberTipline

For other resources on how to stay vigilant and to learn about the issues, click here.

Tuesday’s presentation was hosted through a partnership between the Ashland County Prosecutor’s Office and Ashland City Schools.

The Ohio ICAC Task Force formed in 1999 as part of the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office. It is funded through a federal grant program from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Lead reporter for Ashland Source who happens to own more bikes than pairs of jeans. His coverage focuses on city and county government, and everything in between. He lives in Mansfield with his wife and...