Social media platforms are by far the most common form of communication among our teens. A 2015 study by the Pew Research Center stated that 71% of teens between the ages of 12 and 18 years use more than one form of social media. But little education and awareness of the legal implications of the information exchanged is provided to these teens, which has landed some of them in significant legal trouble.
Gone are the days when rivals could just pass mean comments to each other in the hallway or leave obnoxious comments on a bathroom wall. Today, within minutes malicious comments are quickly posted on social media to be shared by all. This makes the impact of the impulsive, mindless, and usually immature sentiments much more damaging, and unfortunately can result in severe, sometimes unforeseen consequences.
Cyberbullying is bullying or intimidating through electronic technology. This has become all too commonplace among teenagers because it takes so little to post unflattering pictures, or quotes, or threating messages from the privacy of your home. Much of what would never be spoken face to face is posted without regard. Two teen girls in Florida were charged with a felony for the suicide of a classmate they unrelentingly bullied. This was just one of many stories of a child being brought to despair by immature and cowardly teens misusing social media. Surely they never realized that their immature act would land them in jail. It is a crime to threaten to kill or seriously harm, menace, or harass a person for any reason, regardless of one’s age.
Defamation is a social tort that protects the reputation of a person from untrue comments or innuendos. In the past this was considered to be gossip or rumor-mongering, but now, given the advent of new technology, publishing these same comments makes one the author and, therefore, may be liable for defamation of character. This may not mean jail time for a person, but can certainly land that person in court, requiring his or her parents to incur significant legal fees.
Probably the most important legal issue that teens – as well as adults – should know about are the laws regarding sexual texting or “sexting.” For those of us born in the era before social media, sexting is the distribution of nude pictures of themselves or anyone else. When the image is that of a person under the age of 18 years, it is considered child pornography and subject to punishment by law. Because child pornography is taken very seriously, dosomething.org is a website for young people that promotes social awareness in hopes of changing behavior. This site presents the alarming percentages of teens who send and or receive nude or sexually explicit photos. Many have no idea they are committing a felony.
The unfortunate reality is that many photos or videos that were exchanged between trusted friends end up in the hands of ill-intended teens and get widely disseminated on social media. Anyone caught having or disseminating child pornography, regardless of who started it, is at risk of criminal repercussions. There have been several so-called “THOT” pages (That Ho Over There) started at high schools where students published nude pictures of classmates. These pages go viral within minutes, and although they are taken down quickly, the damage usually is already done. These actions can result in expulsion and suspension of students and significant emotional distress to the victim.
Another legal concern is the issue of privacy. Many users don’t realize that personal information displayed on social media can be easily obtained and misused. Identity theft is on the rise, not just because criminals are more savvy, but because so many people are careless with their information. Disclosure of email, birth date, and cell phone number are all desirable pieces of information that drive marketing, but more importantly, allows information to be used and misconstrued by anyone to create a phony identity, gain access to accounts, stalk, harass, or even resort to blackmail. The unauthorized use of personal information is illegal and punishable by law.
Another legal issue associated with social media are copyright laws. Many teens, as well as adults, have no idea of the laws that protect the music, videos, pictures, and images thoughtlessly placed on social media. Most don’t realize that just because it is commonly done doesn’t mean that it’s legal. Once a picture is posted, it can be shared, altered, and downloaded all over the world by anyone.
There have been reports of lawsuits brought by parents who found pictures of their children were used in advertisements by major companies without their knowledge or permission. Companies, likewise, have brought suit against individuals who have unknowingly misused their product in a post to entertain their friends. In fact, many of the apps that people download have a check box to acknowledge that the owners are free to use material posted at their discretion, which most folks check without reading the fine print. Because the laws on the books lag behind the changing times, there is often a lot of room for interpretation that puts everyone at risk. So teenagers must understand that just because material is published doesn’t mean it is free to be used for personal distribution.