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Sextortion and Keeping Our Children Safe: What the Woods Family Wants You to Know!

How do you teach your child about how harmful this world can be? Indeed, they should be living life carefree, and enjoying the innocence of childhood. But you know all too well, the evil that lurks in the unlikeliest of places, waiting to take them away like a thief in the night. As a parent, you hide your fears of what could happen when they walk out of the door to go to the store, to school, hang out with friends or drive somewhere in the car. The most you can do is issue a stern warning, “Be safe!” and pray. But is that enough?

Sextortion, What Parents Should KnowSextortion and teen suicide has been on the rise, and stories about its elusive effects on our children doesn’t get the attention it deserves in our community. It might surprise you that our phones, these little devices that play such a big role in our lives, hold many of the clues to what’s going on. We emphasize how useful technology can be, but what parents miss is warning our children about how that same technology is abused and misused in the sneakiest of ways. Everything from internet scammers posing as friends to legit-looking companies plotting to steal their money and their lives; parents must be hypervigilant about it all. It is truly unthinkable that a smartphone could be the reason your child gets caught up chatting with the wrong person, or invited to the wrong place, never to return. 

Several national news outlets have featured the story about James Woods, a talented and beloved 17 year-old Black high school student athlete who was a victim of cyber bullying and sextortion. He ended his life in November 2022 after seemingly innocent messages from someone on the other side of the screen, turned into something more sinister, and his parents’ worst nightmare. 

During one of the interviews of the James’ family, his mother, Tamia Woods, like most moms, did most of the talking. His father, Tim Woods, spoke few, yet profound words. They sat together to share their story and I was taken by the powerful staccato rhythm of Mrs. Woods’ voice as she recounted the details; her body still fighting mad through the unstoppable tears. Mr. Woods, by her side, as a strong, quiet force supporting her through it all. It tugged at my heartstrings and I knew I had to meet them. I reached out on Instagram, innocent enough– this is how we say hello nowadays. Their son, too, was contacted through a social media app. After introducing myself and a few exchanges, Mrs. Woods agreed to meet me virtually. Similarly, these are the same initial steps that James took, thinking it was harmless. In reality, millions of kids, even adults, do this all of the time, never anticipating that an “innocent chat” could lead to tragedy. From a few brief exchanges, I perceived such grace, strength and sincerity from Mrs. Woods, that I instantly  knew she was someone I wanted to befriend. James, I believe, thought the same thing. But how do you really know who you’re talking to on the other end? How do you know their true intentions? 

Digital communication has simplified the process of becoming acquainted with people. It’s not always easy to gauge someone’s trustworthiness in person; it’s even more difficult on an app. To present myself as a credible individual who genuinely wanted to connect with Mrs. Woods, I told her how her and husband’s story about the loss of their only child was so palpable that I had to reach out to learn how I could be part of the Do It for James Foundation, and spread the word. Even though I was familiar with their story, she again shared the events leading up to her son’s suicide –to me– and I empathized, feeling what she felt: the pain, the anguish and the urgent need to warn others. The Woods’ mission through the foundation is to use the memory of their son James, to make a difference and prevent it from happening to another child.

One thing Tamia and Tim Woods created was a deck of cards for young people to keep in case they are ever in a scenario where someone is threatening to expose compromising pictures of them for money. Tamia says the cards, in part, instruct kids to put the phone down and to step away. Even though that trusted device contains our whole entire world of contacts, friends, games, precious moments and private notes, at that very moment that device is not to be trusted. The phone and whoever is on the other side of its screen now wants your child’s joy, their happiness, their freedom– even their life. Tamia says in just minutes, the word “sicko” in a message, stripped her son of all self-esteem and dignity. What if he had the positive reinforcement to put the phone down and confide in a trusted adult, knowing those words weren’t true? The card’s instructions are simple: First, remember you are loved. Next, immediately tell your parents or a trusted adult. Even if only one child is saved with these cards, that alone would ease the void the Woods’ endure, missing James everyday. 

I promised Mrs. Woods that I would help spread the word about James Woods, a beautiful soul, full of life, cut short by the dark side of technology, deceitful messages and youthful confusion. As a doctor and a mother, I am so thankful that the Woods’ shared their story, because even for me, it brought about an understanding that these issues affect Black families too. We, as Black parents, buy the latest phones, tablets, computers and other gadgets for our kids, therefore our kids are at risk as well. We must be included in these news stories, and proactively  make internet safety a common household discussion. 

Sextortion is more common than you think. Sometimes it’s easy to believe “that could never happen to me” or to think your child has never been affected because the signs aren’t obvious. Do not put it off until tomorrow, and do not forego these important talks with your child because it feels embarrassing. Now is the time to instruct your child when to put the phone down, and what to do if they’re ever faced with those evils that lurk around the virtual corner of their phones, or you could risk missing everything about your child. 

Sources 

  • Do It For James Foundation – https://www.letsdifj.org
  • Local News Cleveland 19 Interview – https://youtu.be/Xlsqy1UA0KU?si=_MFd_M0zCBVrJ-48 
  • Local News Detroit 4 Interview – https://youtu.be/QD0inxJn9jQ?si=jkpu81-b6xmi6MFw
  • Remembering James Wood, Honor During High School Graduation Ceremony – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aup7cZMd-Rs
  • Sextortion, What Parents Should Know – https://www.missingkids.org/content/dam/netsmartz/downloadable/tipsheets/sextortion-what-parents-should-know.pdf

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