The prevalence of social media in life seems to increase exponentially every day. Since the social media mammoth Facebook launched in 2004, we’ve seen an explosion of new social media sites, including Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. Their role in teen social interaction is vastly complex and riddled with legal issues.
Two major legal issues currently facing courts and legislatures nationwide are cyberbullying and sexting. While many teenagers and parents believe that “private” social media messages and posts are protected through a legally recognized privacy right, this is not so within the view of Pennsylvania courts.
The laws about using electronic and social media evidence in court are still taking shape in our legal system. Several Pennsylvania courts have allowed the use of non-public information in a party’s social media account, if it is obvious from the publicly available portion of the account that information relevant to a court case may be on the private area. For example, a Lackawanna County criminal court granted a search warrant for private information on a homicide suspect’s private Facebook account, for information regarding the victim during a specified time.
An Indiana County court said that “those who elect to use social media, and place things on the internet for viewing, sharing and use with others, waive an expectation of privacy.” Parents must realize that a teenager’s private images and messages might be used in court or a search warrant.
Teens can also face legal consequences for social media use. In 2013, two Greensburg teens faced charges for “sexting” a nude image of a 13-year-old girl, which she sent privately to a 14-year-old boy. The girl’s parents reported the message to the police, and both teens were charged under Pennsylvania’s new sexting law, the summary offense of “transmission of sexually explicit images by minors.”
In a recent Pennsylvania Superior court case, a 15-year-old girl’s conviction for harassment using Facebook to cyberbully another high school student was upheld. The young girl was held accountable under Pennsylvania’s law against cyber harassment of a minor for her Facebook post that claimed the victim had herpes and made other lewd and obscene comments. The court said her “misuse of the internet and social media was criminal.”
Sexting and cyberbullying are increasingly important concerns for Pennsylvania lawmakers and courts due to the prevalence of social media. Parents and caregivers should caution teenagers about the potential legal risks of utilizing social media in inappropriate ways that are actually illegal. Both public posts and private social media messages may be used to charge teenagers with these “new” crimes, and social media content can be used in court and by police in many cases. The primary message to kids is that they should post with caution.
Samantha Link is a third-year law student at Penn State. She has worked in the law school’s Family Law Clinic.