Social media posting guide for teens

Post smart: repercussions could include reputation damage and even arrest

By Tara Evans - Executive Producer, Ginger Gadsden - Anchor

ORLANDO, Fla. - Chances are children and teens have more social media accounts than their parents are even aware of, and with school starting back up in Central Florida, that can mean big problems.

[WEB EXTRA: State Attorney Ashton's interview | Attorneys' Tips]

A 14-year-old Lake County student was arrested Wednesday after deputies said he threatened to shoot up two schools on Instagram. Earlier this year, an Osceola County teen was arrested after deputies said she posted bomb threats on Twitter.

At the end of last school year, a Winter Park High School teen was also arrested, after she was accused of threatening to kill her teacher on Twitter:
"I am on the verge of tears I want to rip her face off."

The Winter Park student's attorney told Local 6 formal charges were never filed against her, but State Attorney Jeff Ashton said threats made online can be pretty serious.

"You can't really tell the difference between someone that's just venting and someone that means to threaten somebody or give harm to somebody," said Ashton. "When I was a kid, if you got mad, you just told your friend 'Man, I'm just really mad, I could just punch that person.' Unfortunately now, the way you tell them is through social media and it just goes out to hundreds of people that maybe you didn't even intend it to. But what the law has us look at is the intention to communicate it to a particular person. Most of the cyber-stalking laws require criminalized conduct where it is communicated to a particular person."

In some cases, you can even be charged with a felony. But even if you're not, Ashton said if a teen is making threats, it could be indicative of an even bigger problem.

"Some of these things need to be taken seriously, not necessarily in terms of criminal prosecution or even arrest, but they're a red flag of something that needs to be looked at," said Ashton.

Attorney Mike Snure, who represented that Winter Park teen, said it's not the first case of a criminal post he's seen, though he said usually it's naked pictures. Even among teenage friends, those can mean big consequences.

"It's rare to get charged with a crime when it's just your classmates," said Snure. "It happens, but it's rare. In state court, each count, each picture or video is punishable by up to five years in prison. In federal court, the mere possession of one picture is punishable by up to 10 years, and one video counts for 75 pics because in federal court, they add up how much stuff you have. If they can prove in federal court that you either sent or received it, which if they have your phone or computer they can probably prove that, each count is punishable by up to 20 years in prison and has a mandatory five years in prison sentence."

Even if what a teen has posted isn't considered criminal, there are can be other repercussions.

At the end of last school year, Orange County Public Schools announced it has acquired software to monitor social media "to proactively prevent, intervene and (watch) situations that may impact students and staff." The district has obtained an annual license with SnapTrends, software that monitors Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram. The district said it plans to use the software to conduct routine monitoring for the purposes of prevention or early intervention of potential issues in which students or staff could be at risk to themselves or to others.

Foley & Lardner attorney Adam Losey said teens also run the risk of ruining their reputations, which could have a major impact on their futures.

"Sometimes, you say things that you don't want to be remembered for," said Losey. "If it happens on the playground or around the monkey bars, you may be embarrassed about it and remember it later in life, but it's not going to haunt you the same way if somebody does a Google search on your name and that comment posts for the rest of your life. You can lose money associated with that, and on top of that, you can have your reputation permanently ruined."

Even if you think you're sharing them privately online, Losey said think again.

"Privacy settings on a social media site have nothing to do with whether or not somebody can access that or investigate it in a civil lawsuit or a crime," said Losey. "With certain cases, the government, with a warrant or with other ways can get access to those private messages without you even knowing it. Something you may not think about, too, your friend's account can get hacked. Someone overseas could be taking your pictures and use blackmail or something like that. It's not uncommon to see criminals target embarrassing information when they get access to accounts they're not supposed to."

He said parents can also be held liable for things their children say, especially if they're being accused of defamation.

"Essentially if you lie about someone and they're hurt by it or their reputation is hurt by it, they can sue you and they can recover damages in many cases for the harm they suffer," said Losey. "We've actually seen more lawsuits coming up nationally parents going after other kids and other parents for cyber-bullying."

He said that parents do have some recourse if their kids are under 13 under the Children Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA.

"If you notice there's a website or platform that's collecting information about your child, that may not be OK," said Losey. "Your child may actually be lying to the website to try to get access to something they shouldn't. If you know your children are breaking that bargain, you would have them removed from the site and most large social media sites have a mechanism under the help section where if you know there's an account that belongs to a child under 13 you can report it and they'll take it down."

There's a golden rule Losey recommends for all teens.

"Don't put something online or attack a person if it's something you wouldn't say it to their face," said Losey. "Think before you click."

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