By Deputy Attorney Bruce Chang
Technology is advancing at unprecedented speeds, seemingly making the world smaller and connecting people in ways that appeared in the science fiction of the past. When I was a boy, I remember my mother writing to relatives in China on razor-thin airmail paper and waiting weeks for a reply. Now I can video tour my sister’s home in Europe in real time. Like all progress, there are consequences and problems that arise from making it so easy to connect with strangers around the globe on your social media and phones.
In my first career as a public school teacher, I watched many students grow from kids to teens to young men and women. One of the most difficult times is the middle school years. This is where many students faced the age-old conflict of trying to make decisions like independent people while also wanting to please/impress their peers and test their limits with parents and teachers. As a teen, I remember how my “nosy and annoying” parents drove me crazy by asking me questions about who I hung out with, what we were doing, and where. I was determined to live my own life and tune out many of their lectures. For me as a teen and many of my students, this would unfortunately lead to risky behavior and reluctance to tell supportive adults what happened after something bad happened.
In my current assignment as a cyber crimes prosecutor, I handle many cases where teens do not appreciate the potential results of using social media and digital technology from their phones. Many cases tend to fall into two categories:
- Sharing Digital Images: these can start off simply enough, sending semi-clothed or nude selfies to boyfriends/girlfriends, sexting. Often, a recipient of a sext promises not to share the image, but the images mind up being disseminated for a number of reasons — relationship ends, peers sharing with other peers, etc. — all of which may result in issues such as bullying, anxiety, depression, self harm, suicide, and sextortion.
- Meeting Strangers via Social Media: there are so many social media apps available on phones that it is hard for law enforcement to keep track of everything. Teens will start chatting with online strangers and in the best case scenario, they are communicating with someone they know absolutely nothing about (age, location, criminal record). In the worst case scenarios, I’ve handled cases where adult men posing as teens create a relationship with a child or teen and arranged for nude images, sexts, and midnight meetings, at times resulting in sextortion or sex trafficking.
As a parent, it drives me crazy to watch my kids taking gag videos of each other with their tablets or phones. I keep telling them to remember that once digital information is shared, it is almost impossible to unring that bell. I find myself lecturing that the best way to stop personal information from being available to the entire world is to use good judgment in not taking/posting at all.
From all of my experiences as a teen, teacher, prosecutor, and parent, I hope that technology will evolve that will help to protect our teens from themselves. Until then I intend to be the same “nosy and annoying” parent that my parents were!