On Oct. 10, 15-year-old Amanda Todd committed suicide after years of sexually explicit coercion and blackmail. She was an unwitting victim of the seedy and clandestine world of cappersindividuals who pressure teenagers into exposing themselves via webcam, photograph them, and then use the lewd pics for blackmailing.

Sadly, Todd is not alone.

A new investigation reveals that the majority of sexually explicit images and videos of young people and children on the Internet are stolen or obtained without the subject’s permission.

The study, conducted by the British advocacy group Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), revealed that 88 percent of all self-generated and sexually explicit content featuring teens was stolen from their original sources by “parasite websites.”

Researchers for the IWF spent a combined 47 hours over the course of four weeks analyzing 12,224 images and videos on 68 different sites. Of these, 7,147 were images, 5,077 were videos, and 5,001 were both.

The study discovered that 10,776 photos and clips88 percent— were found on “parasite websites,” pages that are “often created for the sole purpose of offering sexually explicit images and videos of young people.”

This research gives an unsettling indication of the number of images and videos on the [I]nternet featuring young people performing sexually explicit acts or posing,” states IFW CEO Susie Hargreaves.

She continued:

It also highlights the problem of control of these images— once an image has been copied onto a parasite website, it will no longer suffice to simply remove the image from the online account. We need young people to realise that once an image or a video has gone online, they may never be able to remove it entirely.

The study also provides anonymous first-hand accounts of teens whose self-generated content has appeared in such sites. One specific individual tells of how their name was affixed to the stolen content and would therefore show up whenever someone googled them.

One explicit image I took when I was young but cannot be specific to if I was 15 or 16 because it was long ago, and I never posted it to the internet... It is coming up on the first page of [search engine] also if my name is searched and on [search engine] images for my name which could jeopardize any future career I have or if any family/friends come across it.

Another teen explains how the stolen content led to depression.

I endured so much bullying because of this photograph and others... I was eventually admitted for severe depression and was treated for a suicide attempt.

The numbers are staggering but unsurprising. In fact, there have been multiple instances in which sexually explicit content taken without the user’s consent has made the front page news.

The most glaring example is r/jailbait, a Reddit subgroup that featured photographs and videos of scantily clad underage girls. The existence of the subreddit first gained national attention in late Sept. 2011, when CNN anchor Anderson Cooper did an exposé of the group on his television program. R/jailbait was subsequently shut down in early Oct. 2011 after site administrators discovered that a redditor was using the platform to provide nude photographs of an ex-girlfriend.  

Similarly, Gawker wrote about a different subreddit, r/photobucketplunder, whose users were using a practice called “fusking” to scan hosting site Photobucket to find sexually suggestive photographs of women to post on the subcategory. Following the Gawker article, Photobucket sent a takedown notice threatening legal action to the subreddit’s moderators. The mods agreed to take down /photobucketplunder on the grounds that they used the site’s name without authorization, but proceeded to open r/photoplunder, a different group that displayed the exact same content.

Finally, there’s the case of Is Anyone Up (IAU), a “revenge site” created by Hunter Moore that’s stocked with nude photos submitted by spiteful exes without the subject’s consent. Much like r/jailbait, Anderson Cooper exposed IAU in public. The site eventually shut down, but not because Cooper report. Moore claimed he was tired of filtering out images of underage teens from his page.

As for the IFW, it advises teens to abstain from “sexting.” Young people remove the risk of being victimized by not creating the content in the first place. Much like abstinence, that idea is great in theory but not in its implementation, particularly given that “sexting is becoming the norm with that age group. And, surely, putting the onus on the victims isn’t going to fix a thing.

Photo via Todd Kravos/Flickr