Teens and Technology

The following information was discussed by Attorney Whitney Hughes on the November 2, 2010 edition of Legal Briefs on KDKA's Pittsburgh Today Live Show.

We've all heard the horror stories about teens and sexting and cyber bullying and the unfortunate consequences that come from both.

Below is a brief outline of where the law stands now and some helpful tips when facing these issues with teens now.

First, Pennsylvania has no specific statute on sexting.

There is legislation that has passed the Pennsylvania state House and is pending before the state Senate that would make it illegal for any minor to knowingly transmit an inappropriate image of themselves or another minor, 13 years of age or more. If this bill passes, the individual would be charged with a second degree misdemeanor.

Currently, if an individual is criminally charged, they are charged under existing child pornography laws. Under Pennsylvania's child pornography law, it's a felony to possess or disseminate photos of a minor engaged in sexual activity, "lewd exhibition of the genitals" or nudity that is meant to titillate. Under current law, minors who send sexually explicit photographs from one cell phone to another could be convicted of a felony.

Pennsylvania does have a statute on bullying in schools or the school setting which includes a provision for bullying through electronic means.

The Pennsylvania law as it is written requires schools to have written policies, made available to students, which address bullying and the persons to whom complaints should be made. It also defines bullying as:

An intentional electronic, written, verbal or physical act, or a series of acts:

  1. directed at another student or students;
  2. which occurs in a school setting;
  3. that is severe, persistent or pervasive; and
  4. that has the effect of doing any of the following:
  5. substantially interfering with a student's education;
  6. creating a threatening environment; or
  7. substantially disrupting the orderly operation of the school; and "school setting" shall mean in the school, on school grounds, in school vehicles, at a designated bus stop or at any activity sponsored, supervised or sanctioned by the school.

Bullying that occurs outside of school, and that rises to the level of criminal activity can still be charged under existing harassment laws which also include provisions for harassment through internet postings and e-mails.

Tips For Parents

Unfortunately this is one area where the law is not on par with the current state of technology and many states are trying to catch up. While we are fortunate in Pennsylvania to have laws which address these topics, and legislators who are attempting to draft legislation to more accurately address the problems, more often than not, the task to enforce appropriate behavior and nip problems in the bud early falls to the parents. Below are some helpful tips for dealing with kids who are spending an ever-increasing amount of time on-line.

  • Posting something on the internet is essentially the same thing as shouting it in a town square. It is a public domain. You should assume that anyone will be able to have access to it. Comments that you think you are posting anonymously can be traced back to you.
  • Check your child's on-line account and check their e-mails and ALWAYS monitor chat room and cell phone use heavily – this is where many of the problems occur.
  • Parents should keep the computer in a common room such as a family room or living room so that they are able to monitor the child's on-line activity, make sure that you have parental controls and blocking software installed.
  • Instruct your children:
    • to never arrange a face-to-face meeting with someone they met online;
    • to never upload (post) pictures of themselves onto the Internet or on-line service to people they do not personally know;
    • to never give out identifying information such as their name, home address, school name, or telephone number;
    • to never download pictures from an unknown source, as there is a good chance there could be sexually explicit images;
    • to never respond to messages or bulletin board postings that are suggestive, obscene, belligerent, or harassing;
    • that whatever they are told on-line may or may not be true.

As always, for a referral to an attorney practicing in the areas we've discussed today, contact the Allegheny County Bar Association's Lawyer Referral Service at 412-261-5555, or visit their website at www.acbalrs.org.