When police announced child pornography charges in the heart-wrenching Rehtaeh Parsons case, many were baffled. But the charges shed light on something cyber-cops see a lot of these days. Not every Internet child pornographer is the prototypical adult male predator. Sometimes the offenders are otherwise normal teenaged kids and the victims are their peers. This disturbing phenomenon challenges our understanding of child pornography. Why teen offenders? What is going on?
The reality is that a small but important category of Internet child pornography offending behaviour is an offshoot of being a contemporary teenager, where much of one’s social life is lived online. These teen crimes are no less devastating to victims, but require a more nuanced approach response than simply demonizing and punishing teens as Internet predators.
As thinking beings, we all revisit (discuss, analyze) past experiences to derive meaning from them. Teenagers are no different, except that much of that revisiting is done online. Teenage social media is crammed with photos and perspectives on last night’s party, concert, game, or rumour. The boundary between real and online life is so permeable that, with ubiquitous smartphone cameras, teens routinely capture scenes at the original event to facilitate revisitation online later.
On the bright side, such use of social media richly advances discussion of life events big and small, which aids a teenager’s crucial search for meaning and identity. But there is a dark side too.
Sadly, teenagers are sometimes very cruel to each other. And apart from deliberate cruelty, teen years are littered with awkward missteps that hurt others. Yet it would be naive to think these problematic behaviours are somehow magically immune from the ubiquitous teenage practice of electronic capture and revisitation online. If a teenager is so lacking in empathy or judgment as to commit a sexual assault at a party, it is hardly surprising he will also do what teens habitually do, and give the event another life online. But what that teen calls routine social media use, the law calls distributing child pornography.
So what do we do? Well, a couple of things. First, we emphasize that re-victimizing sexual assault victims by posting images of their abuse online is a serious crime that has serious penal consequences. We do not dismiss teenage drinking and driving fatalities as nothing more than typical teenage momentary bad judgment: we impose serious criminal penalties. We should be just as firm with this unique category of teenage child pornographers. Conviction rates for child pornography offences are close to 100 per cent, because online activity leaves digital footprints police can track right to the offender. So kids posting images of abuse must know: They will be convicted and will go to jail.
But second, we must temper criminal justice responses with broader measures aimed at the best outcome - prevention. Much offending and victimizing behaviour online is an undesirable by-product of the poor judgment that often permeates teenage life. This poor judgment is usually transitory, and thus can be effectively addressed through education, awareness and empathy building at home, in schools and through media itself. The messages to kids are simple: First, assume there are people out there who wish to cause you harm, and don’t post anything about yourself that those people could use to hurt you; and, don’t post anything about others that you would not want posted about yourself.
Social media is a tool that can be used productively and destructively. We owe it to all our teenagers, both potential online victims and potential perpetrators, to teach them the difference. “Victim of internet child pornography” is a sad, sad line on a teenage resume, and so is “Convicted Internet child pornographer”.
David Butt is a criminal lawyer, and counsel to the Kids Internet Safety Alliance