The blogosphere buzzed this week with outraged comments about the arrest of a 17-year-old Oak Park, IL boy whose parents accepted a charge of misdemeanor “disorderly conduct” in lieu of much more serious cyberbullying and sexual misconduct charges that could resulted. Most of the comments were some variation on “what he said is just a case of boys being boys – and the First Amendment protects what he said.” And nearly all of them seemed to act as if this were a first time incident.
It isn’t. Facebook has become one of the most common sources of police complaints in many jurisdictions, and arrests based on Facebook evidence happen multiple times every day. Some of them involve truly stupid criminals who brag about bank robberies, assaults, or escaping from officers trying to serve warrants.
But the Illinois boy whose name has been withheld because he is a juvenile under Illinois law is far from the first high school student arrested for what they posted online. Here’s a very short list of five recent arrests of teenagers who posted inappropriate or illegal content on Facebook that made the news this month alone – I could have filled a book with the links and articles I’ve collected. (In fact, I did fill at one chapter in my new book with some that set legal precedent!)
- Three teens in Pennsylvania were arrested and charged with harassment over two Facebook pages. The Facebook Page ”McKeesport Nastiest Smutz” was created by two girls, one 14 and the other 15, while the Facebook Page ”McKeesport Hoes” was created by 18-year-old James Foster. The girls are also charged with conspiracy.
- Two tweens in Issaquah, WA were arrested and charged with cyberstalking after an acquaintance left her Facebook page open on a computer at a library and the girls used her account to send offers of sex and post offensive photos (including one with horns PhotoShopped onto the girl’s head) on her own Facebook wall.
- A Roswell, NM boy was arrested and charged with child pornography after he bullied his girlfriend into sending him nude photos of herself – then threatened to post them online if she didn’t agree to have sex. When she refused, he posted them.
- A South Carolina boy was arrested and charged as a juvenile with making threats to a public official after he sent a Facebook message to his principal saying, “It’s my choice to let you live, sir. That’s not a threat, it’s a promise.”
- Last, but not least, five Illinois men (17 and 18 and charged as adults) were arrested for threatening to post a video on Facebook of a young woman (also 18) having sex with one of the men unless she agreed to have sex with them all.
I can hear someone saying, “yes, but those cases are different – they involved real actions, not just someone’s opinion about whether someone else was ‘hot’”. Yes – which I suspect is why the young man was allowed to negotiate a lesser charge – and no.
First, many of the girls in the Oak Park case were underage, and all were ranked on their sexual ability. Sex with these girls is a crime — and ranking their performance seems to imply the crime of statutory rape. That alone warrants police involvement.
Second, teenage girls are often the victim of date rape, assaults and a truly horrific range of emotional abuse once locker-room jokes and bragging tarnishes their reputation. It’s not outside the bounds of reason that some unstable person (adult or teen) who sees a sex act linked to a young girl would demand that she perform the same sex act with them.
That, I think, is the real reason that officials in Illinois were right to charge the young man. It isn’t that he rated them as “hot or not”, it’s that he described sex acts that are alleged to have been performed by each girl.
It brings me to the real concern here. Are we raising an unsupervised, untrained, unmonitored online generation? God bless my former daughter-in-law, who not only requires that her middle-school kids use a computer in the family room but takes time to monitor their social media usage as a friend and subscriber to their pages. Too bad these young people didn’t have parents like that!
Frankly, I hope that the parents of the young people victimized in all of these cases sue the people who used the Internet to harass their children. They may be judgment proof now, but their parents aren’t if they live in Oak Park, and some day all of them will have assets worth seizing. Litigation may be the best way to teach parents that if they’re going to provide technology to their children, they’d better also provide training and oversight in how they use it.
It’s a good reminder for every social media user that as Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web once told an audience at the Agenda conference, “The Internet isn’t written in ink — it’s written in mathematics, and that’s forever.”