How Online Misbehavior Lands Teens in Legal Trouble
It's incredibly easy to sit behind a computer keyboard and say or do things that you'd never say or do in person. Pick a screen name, fabricate some personal details and you can comment on websites or participate in chat rooms with total anonymity.
Teenagers, too, have used cellphones and the Internet to behave in ways they never would in real life.
Too many model students and "good kids" spend their screen time bullying classmates. Text messages are sent to plan a flash mob, often with the intent to cause havoc. And thanks to digital photography, kids are able to share photos of themselves or others in compromising situations.
Children who use their computers to cyberbully or their smartphones to send provocative photos may think that their actions are no big deal. In reality, these children may be breaking the law and may have to face legal consequences.
The long virtual arm of the law
In his book, "Cybertraps for the Young" (NTI Upstream, 2011), Vermont attorney and educational consultant Frederick Lane lists a variety of crimes and moral breaches young people can commit using social media, cellphones and other electronic devices.
According to Lane, those crimes and misdemeanors include intellectual dishonesty, copyright infringement, defamation, invasion of privacy, Internet addiction, hacking, identity theft, cyberbullying and cyberstalking, "sexting" and "sextortion," obscenity and child pornography.
"Since many of these are communication crimes, children commit them through normal use of the devices in questions," Lane explained. "For instance, making a series of threatening statements to someone is harassment. It becomes cyberharassment when someone chooses to use a cellphone or computer to do so.
"Other cybercrimes take more ingenuity," he said. "For instance, do a search on YouTube for 'cheat test cellphone' to see how creative some kids can be. A crime like hacking or identity theft often requires extensive research or practice, although both are getting easier."
Crime and punishment
Yes, kids do often get away with their behavior, but if they are caught, will they likely have to suffer legal consequences?
"It depends on what they are convicted of and what the applicable state laws are," explained Ruth Carter, Internet law blogger, former therapist and 2011 graduate of the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. "They could be arrested, incarcerated, fined, required to do community service, required to attend counseling and/or anger management, probation, etc.
"If the kids are older, they may be tried as adults, and if convicted, placed in adult prison," Carter said. "They may also face civil lawsuits for the damage they cause to individuals or their property."
On her blog, The Undeniable Ruth, Carter discusses some of the ramifications of online misbehavior. In Arizona, for example, simply making threats of violence against someone is enough to have the author of the threat charged with a crime.
Cyberharassment is a similar matter.
"It's illegal in most states and people are getting arrested for bullying people via social media websites, text messages, email and for bullying people by creating websites about them," Carter said. "Authorities have been taking these cases more seriously since [Missouri eighth-grader] Megan Meier committed suicide at age 13 after receiving a message on her MySpace page that she was better off dead."
And don't forget that a minor who is sending naked pictures to a boyfriend or girlfriend could be committing a crime that follows him or her for life. Although some states are beginning to relax their laws, "sexting" can be considered distribution of child pornography. Teens caught in possession of such photos can be charged as sex offenders.
What parents can do
If parents discover their child is behaving illegally online, the first thing to do, of course, is make sure the behavior stops. After that, the steps parents need to take depend on the behavior itself.
"Academic dishonesty, for instance, generally doesn't involve the police, but parents may want their child to retake any test on which he or she cheated," Lane said. "However, it is always a good idea to consult with a criminal defense lawyer about the proper course of action if parents think that their child might have broken the law.
"If other people are involved (for instance, the child hacked into computers or was cyberbullying someone or was involved in sexting), it may be to the child's advantage if the family reports the crime themselves to law enforcement," Lane said. "The important thing to remember is that digital evidence doesn't go away and is much easier to recover than most people realize."
Unfortunately, neither teenagers nor parents fully appreciate the legal ramifications of online behaviors.
Lane thinks there are a few reasons for this. First, online and mobile technology is still relatively new, which means that laws have not fully caught up to these developments.
Second, the level of legal education is not as high as it should be in our culture, which means that people have only a rough idea of what constitutes criminal behavior in the real world, let alone in cyberspace.
And third, the disconnected and seemingly anonymous nature of online activity encourages behavior that individuals would not engage in face-to-face.
"As citizens, we have an obligation to educate ourselves about the laws that govern our behavior," Lane said. "Parents have the primary responsibility for educating and advising their children, but I think that schools can play a valuable supplementary role."