Smartphones and social media have become a way of life in the 21st century — about 6.7 trillion text messages were sent in 2014. The dark side of all that interaction includes sex crimes, bullying and mental health issues.
Many teenagers know when they’re behaving inappropriately online, but they don’t know what they’re doing could be a crime. And while parents might understand the consequences of such behavior, they often don’t understand the technology and provide no oversight over their children’s online communication.
That was the message Sgt. Trevor Wenning presented to about 40 parents at Grant Union Junior-Senior High School April 23. Wenning was invited here by Todd McKinley and Cindy Tirico from the county probation department. Wenning has been with the Keizer Police Department since 1998 and supervises a school resource unit in a large school district.
The subject is both sensitive and complex, involving numerous state laws and constantly changing technology. Potential crimes include sextortion, where boys might use nude photos to threaten girls for more photos. Cyberbullying can go on for years because nude photos are never completely deleted, he said, and suicidal ideation often results from cyberbullying.
About 89 percent of U.S. teenagers have a smartphone, and about 93 percent of them report going online every day. Nearly half of U.S. teenagers reported their social life would end or be worsened without a smartphone — especially the latest version. Many reported their smartphone was second only to clothing for telling the most about their social status, Wenning said.
“Smartphones are a good tool for us, but we need to monitor them,” he said.
Nearly a quarter of teenagers reported going online constantly, averaging about 52 hours per week during working hours. The average smartphone user picked up the device nearly 1,500 times per week for about three hours a day, Wenning said.
“This level of engagement online increases the risks of cyberbullying,” he said.
New psychological impacts have resulted from of all this smartphone use — about half of all U.S. teenagers report feeling addicted to their smartphones and 59 percent of parents agree with that.
Wenning provided a thumbnail sketch of the numerous social media platforms used by teenagers. About 71 percent of teenagers report using more than one social network, with Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat being the top three, he said.
Just when parents think they’re catching up with the new technology, their children are 10 steps ahead, he said. When parents ask teenagers to see their social media accounts, their children often show only the “clean” accounts and leave others hidden, he said.
About 93 percent of parents report they have a good idea of what their children are doing, but about 41 percent of teenagers say their parents don’t, Wenning said.
Wenning noted that photos on Snapchat disappear after a short time period, but apps exist that allow teenagers to save a screenshot of the Snapchat image. The images are never really gone, he said, and he advised parents to remove Snapchat and Instagram from their children’s smartphones.
Tumblr is easy to find, but privacy is difficult to protect, he said. Kik Messenger lets teenagers text message for free, but allows communication with strangers. Whisper is a social confessional app that “can get really dark,” Wenning said. People who use Whisper might encourage a person with suicidal feelings to kill himself, while others might take advantage of vulnerable girls.
Yik Yak works like Twitter but is limited to short distances, which could help a user with bad intentions get physically close to a teenage user, Wenning said. Omegle is a chatroom app intended to connect strangers, which could lead to all kinds of problems, he said.
These apps appeal to teenagers for a variety of reasons, Wenning said, including competition for “likes,” a cure for boredom and the need to be noticed. The reduced inhibition that social networks provide helps teenagers come out of their shells and say things without realizing their actions are not short-lived, that their online behavior is traceable and long-lasting.
About 20 percent of teenagers reported sending nude photos, and about 39 percent reported sending sexually suggestive text messages. Sexting typically starts out as casual talk and then escalates, Wenning said.
“They’re basically fishing,” he said.
The goal of sexting is to line up a sexual encounter, and often sexting involves illegal activities. According to Oregon law, sexually explicit conduct can include actual and simulated behavior — acting out a sexual act could be illegal, Wenning said.
Exchanging nude photos of a girlfriend when she is a minor is illegal. Providing nude photos for a “consideration” could be a felony — even if the “consideration” is not money but a promise to do an older brother’s chores around the house, Wenning said.
“There is no such thing as innocent sexting,” he said. “Nearly all cases of sexting are felonies.”
The consequences can be severe. Some online sex crimes carry a 70-month mandatory minimum, and if multiple offenses occur, the mandatory minimum could be 25 years in prison. And teenagers from 15-17 years could be convicted as an adult, Wenning said.
Offenders convicted of a sex crime must register in all 50 states as a sex offender, he said. This can restrict where they can reside and affect job prospects for the rest of their lives.
If a teenager avoids criminal prosecution, he or she may be subject to cyberbullying. Wenning cited the cases of Amanda Todd and Jessica Logan, teenagers who were bullied for years after their nude photos were initially posted online. Both girls eventually took their own lives. Revenge porn is another example, where boyfriends might post nude photos of ex-girlfriends after a bad breakup.
About 87 percent of teenagers reported being bullied on Facebook, and about 81 percent reported that it was easy to bully a person online, Wenning said. He noted that 58 percent of cyberbullying was done by girls and 41 percent by boys. He said boys often turn to physical bullying instead.
Bullying increases the risk of suicidal ideation, Wenning said. He noted that about three-quarters of teenagers who committed suicide had communicated their intent in some way in advance. There are warning signs, he said.
Teenagers often don’t ask parents for help from bullying because they want to feel in control, don’t want to appear weak or a tattletale, or fear the humiliation that could result.
Parents need to become attuned to their children’s affect and any tendency to withdraw from normal activity. He advised parents to start a conversation with their children about sexting and bullying.
Wenning suggested some aids for parents grappling with this new technology. A useful tool is the online Urban Dictionary, which will help them understand the words and phrases their children use when discussing social networking.
Parents own the smartphones their children use, and they pay the monthly bills, Wenning pointed out. Cell providers offer ways for parents to control cell service, but the providers can’t stop smartphones from accessing the internet through Wi-Fi. Circle with Disney is one program that can provide ways to handle that, Wenning said.
He also suggested parents visit NetSmartz.org, an interactive educational safety resource from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and CommonSenseMedia.org, an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to helping children thrive in a world of media and technology.
He also recommended parents and teenagers learn about the Safe Oregon anonymous tip line created by the Oregon Legislature in 2016. Tips are triaged and interpreted by Oregon State Police within minutes, depending on security, timeliness and need for assistance. The website was initially set up to alert police about potential school shootings, but 40 percent of the tips in 2017 involved bullying, Wenning said.