Snapping, Posting, and Sexting: Oh My: the Legal Risks for Youth in Today's Technological World

- By Jade M. Rosenfeldt

There is no shortage of news stories and warnings dedicated to cautioning parents about the risks of juveniles using a cell phone and/or social media. Warnings are good, but information is even better. The intersection between technology and the law is a moving target. Technology evolves and the law does its best to “catch up.” Staying informed could prevent a youth from finding him or herself in the criminal justice system marred by a conviction/adjudication or label that follows him or her into adulthood. While 86% of teens say that they have received general advice around online use from their parents, researchers at Common Sense Media found that 30% of teens who are online believe that their parents know “a little” or “nothing” about what social media apps and sites they use. Here is a smidgen of what you ought to know:

1. What goes online STAYS online: Anything and everything online is there forever. Our children, teenagers, and young adults need to be told over and over again that every tweet, “like”, and photograph is going into an endless “record” that as of today cannot be erased. Just one post, message, photograph, “like” or tweet can derail a career, an education, and/or relationships. Just last year, at least 10 students accepted to Harvard had their offers rescinded after the administration discovered offensive Facebook meme posts in a “private” group. A “private” group may seek to limit who can see posts and messages, but the reality is that many “private” groups often are managed by one person who allows access to hundreds of unknown and unidentified individuals. There are endless stories of students being suspended from high school as a result of social media use. While many of those suspensions were later overturned in lawsuits contending that the social media was protected speech under the First Amendment, the reality is that these students endured a suspension from school, a disruption to their education, and media attention to the incident online that no vindication in court will ever erase. This topic would not be complete without the mention of the infamous screenshot. Your child may indicate that a post or photograph has been removed, but in all likelihood someone took a screenshot. A “joking” threat posted online and removed within minutes can still result in law enforcement at your front door.

2. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours: One of the most dangerous behaviors by young folk today is the sending and receiving of sexually explicit photographs and videos (i.e. “sexting”). The current research suggests that 1 out of every 5 seventeen year olds has sent an explicit image of themselves to someone else during their lifetime. Should your child send such a photograph or video, it could be considered dissemination of child pornography. And if your child should receive such a photograph or video, it could be considered possession of child pornography. There are serious criminal consequences, including sex offender registration, if a prosecutor decides to prosecute a juvenile for distributing a sexually explicit image or video of him or herself or another person. And, it is not a defense to possession/distribution of child pornography that the juvenile consented to the activity. Sexting and other online activity can lead to cyber bullying and/or harassment. There are criminal penalties, as well as educational consequences for bullying and/or harassing.

3. Monkey see monkey do: Cell phones and driving do NOT mix, but all too often our children have witnessed adults using cell phones while driving. This is problematic because in both North Dakota and Minnesota, drivers under the age of 18 are prohibited from using any electronic communications devices, including cell phones, while driving a motor vehicle. A juvenile cannot use a cell phone to talk, compose, read, or send an electronic message when a vehicle is in motion or a part of traffic unless the sole purpose is to obtain emergency assistance, to prevent a crime that is about to be committed, or in the reasonable belief that an individual’s life or safety is in danger.

4. Beware: There are hundreds of apps that are downright dangerous for juveniles. The app Yubo (formerly Yellow) is called the “Tinder for kids” because it is marketed to 13 to 17 year-olds as a way to make friends, but it allows kids to swipe left or right to “hook-up.” Law enforcement departments have even issued warnings regarding this app. The app Sarahah, while now not available any longer from Apple and Google stores, allows users to send anonymous direct messages to friends through other apps such as Snapchat. This app has been dubbed the “number one cyberbullying app.”

In summary, have continuing dialogues with your children about social media and their cell phone use. Keep yourself informed and know what your children are doing online. Finally, be a good example for your children.

Categories: