Parents urged to ‘be nosey’ and talk with kids about internet dangers that claimed lives of St. Lawrence County youths
BY JEFF CHUDZINSKI
North Country This Week
CANTON — He was a happy boy who loved being outside, enjoyed working on and playing with computers and never missed a day of school.
That was how Sondra Worthley described her son, Xander. Tragically, Xander lost his life on March 21, 2022 while attempting the TikTok “blackout challenge.”Xander was just 12 years old.
Over 100 individuals attended an open forum on May 5, held in the Canton Central School auditorium.
St. Lawrence County Youth Bureau Director Alexa Backus moderated the evening, which sought to warn parents and students alike of the dangers lurking on the internet and social media platforms.
Community members, educators, parents and students alike heard the stories of three St. Lawrence County youth who tragically lost their lives over the course of the last 14 months. All three were influenced in some manner by online activity, videos and challenges, according to their parents.
Shylynn Dixon was an 18-year-old student at Lisbon Central School who attended BOCES and played on the school’s softball team. Her adoptive mother, Rosemarie Maneri, spoke of her suicide.
“She was a wonderful person, full of life. She wasn’t my biological daughter but she was so loved,” she told the audience.
Rosemarie said Shylynn was the sort of girl that “could shake off anything, even better than most grown men.”
But on March 3, 2021 at 11:40 a.m., everything changed when Rosemarie received a call from her partner. Shylynn had taken her own life.
She had been blackmailed for over a year and a half by evil actors in Pakistan over explicit photos she had sent to them.
Shylynn had left her family a suicide note that ended with one request. “Please don’t fall apart. I love you,” she wrote.
“One year later, it’s still difficult. I don’t think I will ever really get over it but each day it can get a little better,” Rosemarie said.
Riley Basford was a 15-year-old student at Potsdam Central School and much like Shylynn, he was described as being full of life, with an infectious smile.
Just over three weeks after Shylnn took her own life, Riley did as well. He also was blackmailed by evil actors online.
His death occurred just six-hours after he was informed he was being blackmailed, investigators told his parents.
“We always knew he was impulsive, he never thought things through. But we never thought something like this would happen,” Mary Rodee, Riley’s mother said.
“Every morning I wake up, it’s like losing him again,” she continued.
Riley’s father, Darren Basford, also participated in the panel and urged parents to speak to their children about the dangers of the internet and social media.
“You don’t want to be in this position. Talk to your kids, even if it is difficult or awkward. Talk to them about having an out, having someone to talk to when things are difficult,” he said.
In a study conducted by the St. Lawrence County Youth Bureau last year, 696 teens participated, with 66% saying that their screen time on mobile devices, tablets and computers was not monitored at all.
Challenges, like the “blackout challenge,” are nothing new but are continually claiming the lives of today’s youth, Backus said.
In addition to social media challenges, sextortion is a rising concern.
Officials say thousands of individuals are affected every year, with many evil actors harassing and blackmailing multiple victims at any given time.
The St. Lawrence County Youth Bureau, along with local officials, hope to reach out to parents in the coming months to further educate in an effort to avoid cases like this in the future.
“We want to equip you with the tools to limit screen time, monitor activity and ensure your child’s safety,” Backus told the crowd.
Though the forum was more about the cautionary tales of three youth lost in recent months, Backus said an additional forum will likely occur that will allow her department to dive deeper in assisting parents ensure their child’s safety when online.
After nearly an hour of discussion, the parents in the forum all had a similar message for the audience.
“Be a nosey parent, be involved. Your children might not like it, I know my boys don’t, but be nosey and know what your children are doing,” Sondra Worthley told the audience.
The St. Lawrence County Youth Bureau can be reached by calling (315) 379-9464.
If you or someone you know is the victim of a cyber threat or scheme, officials urge you to reach out to the Department of Homeland Security immediately.
All complaints are immediately forwarded to the local branch, based in Massena, and the St. Lawrence County Task Force will be in contact shortly after.
The Department of Homeland Security, Cyber Security complaints division can be reached by visiting www.cisa.gov/be-cyber-smart/report-incident