SANDWICH – A series of suggestive text messages sent between teenagers. A photo meant to be private suddenly shared around school. Online bullying that leads to harm or even loss of life.
Scenarios such as these could lead to legal trouble – or worse – area judges recently warned a gymnasium of Sandwich High School students. The presentation was part of Worries of the World Wide Web, a program administered to area youth by the Illinois Judges Association.
Although the idea of sitting in an assembly listening to grown-ups talk about what you should and shouldn’t text might seem like the waste of a school day to many teenagers, area authorities have said the program is meant to be a preventive measure to keep adolescents and children safe, as well as to educate them on the law.
“Age does not protect you,” Waller said to the gathered group of Sandwich freshmen.
One student asked whether a text message is harassment if it hurts your feelings. Another asked if it matters when messages exchanged between groups are inside jokes.
What matters, the judges said, is whether the content could be determined to be sexual in nature, that all involved are younger than 18, and what consequences might come from seemingly innocent-intended actions.
“A minor can’t consent,” Waller said. “It’s unenforceable.”
In the digital age, it might be more commonplace for younger generations to stumble into scenarios such as this one: A teenager takes a photograph of themselves and sends it to their significant other. Maybe it’s a nude photo or something sexual in nature. Sending, sharing or posting such a photo, even to another minor, is a crime.
Authorities could determine that to be dissemination of materials depicting child pornography or child sexual abuse, the judges said.
Was the act premeditated? Malicious in nature? Did it cause harm to the person in the photo?
These are all questions authorities would use to determine whether something as purportedly simple as jokingly snapping a photo of your naked friend coming out of the shower during a school retreat is actually something wrong.
And deleting a message or photo doesn’t mean it’s gone forever.
Picture this: An allegation of dissemination or possession of materials depicting child sexual abuse is made. Or maybe someone alleges someone else is harassing them electronically.
The police get involved. Investigators seize evidence such as phones or other electronic devices to collect messages and sift through data.
“Pre-cellphone, it was his word against my word. We didn’t have the accessibility of physical evidence like we do now,” Hull said.
Investigators can use that evidence to bring down charges. Even juvenile charges or convictions can leave lasting effects, the judges warned.
They said their presentation wasn’t meant to intimidate the gathered teenagers. Instead, it aimed to equip them with enough information to make smart and informed decisions, especially as online actions become more heavily scrutinized or have more dire consequences.
The hourlong presentation addressed the increasing prevalence of cyberbullying, electronic harassment and sexting among youth.
First geared toward middle school students beginning in 2017, co-founders Hull and fellow Kane County Judge Susan Boles now present the program to northern Illinois students and their parents to help delineate between the realities of digital messaging and what’s private or not.
The goal is to grow awareness among area youth about the potential dangers of social media and online messaging, and help prevent them from making a mistake that could affect their life for years to come.
It’s not always feasible for parents or guardians to keep a close eye on what their child is doing on their phone, computer, smart device or even video-gaming console. But it’s important to keep in mind that if you receive a message that appears inappropriate or threatening in nature, you should tell a trusted friend or adult, the judges said.
“It’s definitely good advice, and it’s a message that students need to hear,” Sandwich High School Principal Shane Darnell said “The main thing is we want students to think before they start posting or sending or messaging, because a lot of times when they’re doing something in the moment, they’re not thinking.
“The heart of the message is to think and to help prevent you from getting caught up in a situation where it’s going to affect the rest of your life.”