Ryan Last received a message on a school night in February from someone he believed to be a girl.
Within hours, the 17-year-old, straight-A student and Boy Scout had died by suicide.
"Somebody reached out to him pretending to be a girl, and they started a conversation," his mother, Pauline Stuart, told CNN, fighting back tears as she described what happened to her son days after she and Ryan had finished visiting several colleges he was considering attending after graduating high school.
Editor's note: If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or mental health matters, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 to connect with a trained counselor or visit the NSPL site.
The online conversation quickly grew intimate, and then turned criminal.
The scammer -- posing as a young girl -- sent Ryan a nude photo and then asked Ryan to share an explicit image of himself in return. Immediately after Ryan shared an intimate photo of his own, the cybercriminal demanded $5,000, threatening to make the photo public and send it to Ryan's family and friends.
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The San Jose, California, teen told the cybercriminal he could not pay the full amount, and the demand was ultimately lowered to a fraction of the original figure -- $150. But after paying the scammers from his college savings, Stuart said, "They kept demanding more and more and putting lots of continued pressure on him."
At the time, Stuart knew none of what her son was experiencing. She learned the details after law enforcement investigators reconstructed the events leading up to his death.
She had said goodnight to Ryan at 10 p.m., and described him as her usually happy son. By 2 a.m., he had been scammed, and taken his life. Ryan left behind a suicide note describing how embarrassed he was for himself and the family.
"He really, truly thought in that time that there wasn't a way to get by if those pictures were actually posted online," Pauline said. "His note showed he was absolutely terrified. No child should have to be that scared."
Law enforcement calls the scam "sextortion," and investigators have seen an explosion in complaints from victims leading the FBI to ramp up a campaign to warn parents from coast to coast.
The bureau says there were over 18,000 sextortion-related complaints in 2021, with losses in excess of $13 million. The FBI says the use of child pornography by criminals to lure suspects also constitutes a serious crime.
The investigation into Last's case is ongoing, Stuart and the FBI tell CNN.
"To be a criminal that specifically targets children -- it's one of the more deeper violations of trust I think in society," says FBI Supervisory Special Agent Dan Costin, who leads a team of investigators working to counter crimes against children.
According to Costin, many of the sextortion scams reported to the FBI are determined to be from criminals on the African continent and in Southeast Asia. Federal investigators are working with their law enforcement counterparts around the world, Costin said, to help identify and arrest perpetrators who are targeting kids online.
One challenge for the FBI: many victims of sextortion do not report the incidents to law enforcement.
"The embarrassment piece of this is probably one of the bigger hurdles that the victims have to overcome," said Costin. "It can be a lot, especially in that moment."
But investigators urge victims to quickly contact law enforcement, either online or at their local FBI field office.
Medical experts say there's a key reason why young males are especially vulnerable to sextortion-related scams.
"Teen brains are still developing," said Dr. Scott Hadland, chief of adolescent medicine at Mass General in Boston. "So when something catastrophic happens, like a personal picture is released to people online, it's hard for them to look past that moment and understand that in the big scheme of things they'll be able to get through this."
Hadland said there are steps parents can take to help safeguard their kids from online harm.
"The most important thing that a parent should do with their teen is try to understand what they're doing online," she said. "You want to know when they're going online, who they're interacting with, what platforms they're using. Are they being approached by people that they don't know, are they experiencing pressure to share information or photos?"
Hadland said it's also critical that parents specifically warn teens of scams like sextortion, without shaming them.
"You want to make it clear that they can talk to you if they have done something, or they feel like they've made a mistake," he said.
Ryan's mom agrees.
"You need to talk to your kids because we need to make them aware of it," Stuart said.
Still grieving the loss of her son, she is channeling her family's pain into action, and honoring Ryan by speaking out and telling his story. She hopes that doing so will help save lives.
"How could these people look at themselves in the mirror knowing that $150 is more important than a child's life?" she says. "There's no other word but 'evil' for me that they care much more about money than a child's life. I don't want anybody else to go through what we did."
Hiding in plain sight: Inside the online world of suicidal teens
‘I SHOULD FEEL SAD’
Martina Velasquez of Weston was 13 when she first became aware of secret societies for depressed teens on Instagram and Tumblr. “When you are in a position of absolute depression and hopelessness, you think you are completely alone,” she said.
“Girls like me were posting about devastating break-ups and romanticizing suicide,” Velasquez said. “After a while, you start thinking, I should give in to this. I should feel sad.”
Velasquez said she spent many after-school hours on her cellphone, looking at photos and videos of teens comparing who could cut themselves deepest and starve themselves more, or reading sad quotes about no longer wanting to live. “That negativity is definitely not good for your mental health,” she said.
“I am mature enough now to know I was feeding off of it and getting worse,” said Martina, now 16 and outspoken about keeping younger girls off these sites. “In that time period, I could have killed myself.”
Megan Moreno, a pediatrician specializing in adolescent medicine who conducts research about teen social media use, says young people tell her they use social media to feel connected with others just like them, using hashtags to unlock the doors to secret communities where they can bond over being depressed or suicidal. But at the same time, there is a lot of harmful glorification of suicide that adults either aren’t aware of or don’t know how to monitor, she said.
“I have been told about things online by patients that no amount of (searching) would pick up,” Moreno said. “Cryptic messages … like ‘Elvis has left the building’ … Only kids who are in that circle would know what that means.”
The teens that the South Florida Sun Sentinel spoke to said when deeply depressed or anxious, they go first to social media — rather than reaching out to adults or counselors who won’t relate to their pain.
Teens say they want to feel less alone, and sharing their pain gives them instant access to people who “get” what they are going through. A Boca Raton high school student said she posted in a suicide-related Instagram community that she felt sad and no longer wanted to live. Dozens of teens direct messaged; “if you ever want to talk, I’m here,” one wrote, and “can relate,” wrote another.
For all the empathy the teens share or receive, an element of toxicity can push someone over the edge, not only virtually but in reality. In some of these cyberspace worlds, self-destruction and suicide are not only normalized but encouraged.
‘YOU’RE BETTER OFF DEAD’
Jackie Feliciano, a Palm Beach County 2019 high school graduate, said she often felt alone and sad during her teen years and spent an entire summer without leaving her house. When she posted on Instagram about feeling like a loser, her post drew comments designed to humiliate her further.
“They said things like, ‘Why not kill yourself, you’re better off dead.’ The way teens treat each other online can be so cruel,” she said.
David Robinson, a Florida pediatrician, said his teen patients frequently talk about dealing with social media poison. “You know how mean girls can be in junior high,” he said. “Now they can be nasty 24/7 on social media. I think what’s posted on Instagram and Snapchat is one of the reasons we are seeing more depression. Some of these sites do get shut down when they are found, but new ones come up.”
In 2017, 14-year-old Molly Russell killed herself in London after looking at graphic content of suicide on Instagram. Her father, Ian, told the BBC his daughter likely looked to the internet for support but found something different.
“I think Molly entered that dark rabbit hole of depressive suicidal content. Some were as simple as little cartoons — a black-and-white pencil drawing of a girl that said: ‘Who would love a suicidal girl?’ Some were much more graphic and shocking,” he said.
After an appeal by Ian Russell, Instagram, one of the most popular sites for teenagers, banned graphic images of self-harm.
“In the three months following our policy change we have removed, reduced the visibility of, or added sensitivity screens to, more than 834,000 pieces of content,” Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri wrote on the website in October.
Adolescent mental health specialists want social networking sites to do more to hide or ban content that exacerbates suicidal thoughts or triggers self-harm. Currently, when somebody searches a term related to self-harm or sees a post in their news feed, sites like Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Tumblr and others provide a method to report suicidal content. Phone numbers to get support are sometimes provided.
Even so, the warning screen or “content advisory” message doesn’t prevent anyone from getting to the graphic details. Users can simply choose to view the images anyway.
‘I WISH I HAD SEEN THIS EARLIER’
In the last two months, two South Florida teens, Alejandra Agredo and Bryce Gowdy, posted final public messages on Twitter or Instagram — “I bon voyage” and “to be or not to be” — before their suicides. In both cases, dozens of their teen followers “liked” the posts, while others commented long after it was too late, saying “I hope all is well” or “I wish I had seen this earlier.”
Alejandra’s father, Freddy Agredo, said he had spoken with his daughter just hours before she posted her farewell on social media and tried to cheer her up. “She had several accounts and I tried to monitor them,” he said. “We had talked about how people can be mean online and I told her ‘you have to learn to let it slip away.’”
Orion Zamparello, who worked closely with Agredo as part of the Miami Riders Alliance, said teens are “looking for someone to care. Social media is filled with cries for help.”
When Anthony Wolkin-Grudin put his cry for help on Facebook, his father, David, had been aware of his mental health struggles. “I did not see the post, but Anthony was in therapy and on medication. He had his highs and lows, but we were very much involved in is well being,” his father said. “Anthony wore his feelings on his sleeve. The next day everything could be fine, but he was impulsive. He had an obsession.
“I don’t know why (teens) put it out there on social media. It’s almost like you want to hear someone say you are loved,” David Wolkin-Grudin said. “I will tell you, suicide doesn’t end the pain it transfers it. Every day becomes a battle for the parent.”
As parents struggle with how to react, teenagers repeatedly told the Sun Sentinel when they see such messages, it puts them on the front line of prevention without the expertise to help.
“Basically, you are venting to another teen who has no background or education to counsel you,” said Nicole Yedra, 18, a Fort Lauderdale High School student who conducted a workshop to empower teens at a Broward Youth Leadership Institute Summit in June.
Moreno, the pediatrician, said no one knows how to react to the cries for help they see online, and that’s especially true with teens.
“They see this post that looks concerning and hope someone who knows (the person who made the comment) will do something. They typically will only intervene if the person is in their close social circle,” Moreno said. “It can be stressful not knowing if anyone did.”
For teens, going to an adult for help may not feel like an option. “The general population of high school students don’t want to seem like a snitch or offend their friend,” Yedra said. “It’s like it’s not your business to tell other people, but how else would counselors be able to get a hold of something they post?”
Another challenge: Teens may not know how to identify real threats of self-harm.
“Sometimes I will go up to them and ask, ‘Are you okay’ and they don’t want to talk about it,” Yedra said. “You never know if they are joking or serious.”
“Venting online about deteriorating mental health has become a part of teen culture,” said Jason Tache, 18 and a 2019 graduate of Cypress Bay High School in Weston. “Sometimes they post rants and it helps to get things off their chest, and sometimes it’s a sign of a downward spiral.”
Tache said social media has given his age group a platform to talk about mental health — even if they do so with strangers. Yet, he sees the drawbacks. “It’s a new era surrounding mental health and we don’t really feel like anyone gets it. We look for adults to help us, but we do kind of feel like it’s up to us to figure it out.”
For three years, Tache led the HOPE Sunshine Club at a middle school and recently sat on the board of the Florida Initiative for Suicide Prevention. He believes peer programs and clubs that empower students should receive some of the $144 million allocated in the last two years by the state of Florida to help teenagers with mental health issues.
“Teens need to learn the warning signs and feel comfortable and capable of effectively intervening to save lives,” he said, starting as early as middle school. “Doing that is more preventive. By high school, it is more is reactionary.”
The right reaction can be life-changing.
Broward County high school teacher Kelly Oddone said because a student shared a disturbing Snapchat post of a friend, Oddone was able to stop a suicide. The suicidal girl denied she needed help, but Oddone used a screenshot of the post to get her to open up and get help.
“A week later, her mother came to school and thanked me,” Oddone said. “Her daughter had a real plan.”
Moreno, the doctor who specializes in adolescent medicine and director of the University of Wisconsin Social Media Adolescent Health Research Team, has been studying how social media can be a better resource when it comes to mental health. So far, she has learned teens want a reaction to their online cries for help. “They want a friend to say, ‘I saw what you posted and I’m worried about you. What can I do to help?’ “
Bober, the Hollywood adolescent psychiatrist, sees dozens of teens a month struggling with mental health issues and believes encouraging teens to seek intervention for their friends should be a new focus of prevention strategy.
“I think we have to create a culture where it is more acceptable to speak out about friends who are crying out for help online,” he said. “We need to reframe it from being a snitch to being a hero.
“By not doing that,” he said, “We are seeing the consequences.”
— Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
— Society for Prevention of Teen Suicide: sptsusa.org
— The National Alliance on Mental Illness: Nami.org
— The Jason Foundation Parent Resource Program and Parent Resource Library
— Survivors of Suicide Loss Support Groups fisponline.org/survivors-info/support-groups/
TIPS FOR PARENTS FROM TEENS
— Get to know your child’s friends so they feel comfortable coming to you if they see something
— Learn suicide warning signs
— Follow your teen on their social media accounts, but know they may have private accounts, too
— Ask your teen directly about a cryptic post or worrisome hashtag
Evidence shows that suicide is not inevitable for anyone, and that lives can be saved with mental health support. If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, help is less than a moment away. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text 741741 or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org for free, confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
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