Social Media, Sexual Assault, and Today’s Teens and Tweens

This white awareness ribbon is worn to raise consciousness of violence against women.

This white awareness ribbon is worn to raise consciousness of violence against women.

That social media and sex are intertwined is no surprise. What is surprising is how social media has become a weapon in sexual assaults of kids, tweens, and teens.
In Steubenville, Ohio, and in Torrington CT, and who knows how many other unreported places, social media is being used both during and after sexual assaults in shocking and disturbing ways.
In Stuebenville, the rapists (they’ve been convicted. I see no reason to mince words),not only committed the crime, but were so proud of it they shared it on their social media networks. The crime itself was horrific enough,but the fact that these rapists were so sure that what they were doing was perfectly acceptable behavior that posting it to Instagram seemed neither callous nor repugnant adds to that horror.  How did we get to the point where 17 year old students are so morally bereft that sexually assaulting an unconscious girl seems appropriate fodder for sharing with friends?

Now, in Torrington CT, two 18 year old men stand accused of statutory rape for their sexual assault of thirteen year old girls. The accused’s friends and classmates have overwhelmingly supported them, taking their support to Twitter with the hash tag #save Edgar. Others are using social media channels to blame and attack the victims.

Many have argued that the culture of celebrity – the criminals in both cases were high school football stars in supremely football focused towns – gave the young men a sense of invincibility. But that doesn’t seem enough to so completely skew everyone’s understanding of what rape is.

Of course blaming the victim of a sexual assault is nothing new. When I worked as a rape crisis counselor in an NYC hospital years ago, one of my primary roles was to protect the victim from being further victimized by police and hospital personnel. I would have hoped that some 20 years later, blaming the victim would be over. Instead, a new generation of kids is blaming victims in a very public, self righteous and disturbing way.

Social media has also made victims of child sexual abuse more vulnerable.  As this article in the New York Times Magazine explained, abusers who take photos and videos of their victims (and many do) put them on the internet where they live forever, getting traded and passed along for all eternity. This means that victims re-live their abuse every time a photo of themselves surfaces. The entire paradigm for treating such victims has been turned on its head because of the internet.  The standard treatment for those traumatized by abuse, was to remind them that what happened was in the past.  Now – there is no past.

To me, this connection between social ills and social media is particularly upsetting because I am a great believer in the power of social media to do good.  Social media can find a kidney donor for someone in need,  raise awareness of causes, and even – as in the Arab Spring – make a wholesale change in an entire nation’s way of life. But – as in most things — there is a flip side.   So while I’ve argued before that cyber-bullying is not as rampant and intense as some think, I do believe that one of the things that makes cyber-bullying worse than pre-social media bullying is its never-ending nature.  SnapChat notwithstanding – once it’s out there on the internet — it’s out there.  Added to that that clearly, social media is allowing perverts and criminals to exacerbate their crimes by sharing them with the world at large – and, well, that there is a darker side to social media is pretty undeniable.

Perhaps the instantaneous nature of social media has something to do with it. You don’t have to write a letter to the editor, fold it up, put it in an envelope, stamp it, and walk it to the post office to get your opinion out in front of people. Those steps gave people the time to consider what they were doing and back out. Social media allows us to snap a photo and hit send. Done. Maybe with built in delays gone, people’s’ filters don’t have time to kick in.

The internet and social media channels have also allowed like-minded people to find one another.  There are two sides to this coin, too.  Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign allows who knows how many sruggling Gay young people to feel hopeful about their futures, and less isolated by their sexuality. On the other hand, the online world also allows child molesters to find each other and form a perversion of a “community,” making them feel normalized as well.

Let me be clear – I’m not saying social media is responsible for a decline in moral values, or for violence against women.  Only that instant access to a huge audience, unlimited and easy availability to online porn, and the increased ability for people with unconventional or unsavory views to find each other and thus feel legitimized in those views may have exacerbated an already dire situation.

So do we ban social media from our lives?  No. Just as with most things, moderation is key. But with nearly 40% of Americans spending more time socializing via the Internet than in real life, and almost a quarter admitting that they have missed out on experiencing important moments because they were trying to share said moments via their social networks  – well, moderation seems not be at play. (click here for the source)

So as parents, what can we do? How do you keep your kids from abusing social media, and from letting our culture of immediate gratification pervert their sense of right and wrong? The same way you always have:  by talking to your kids.

  • Talk to them about how to use social media, about what to share and what not to share.
  • Talk to them about online porn, so that they don’t see the objectification of women as normal, and don’t have unhealthy expectations of sex.
  • Make sure they have face to face socializing time – and not just screen social time.  Social media can be a great way for shy kids to find friends, but those friend making skills will be worthless if your child doesn’t then use them in the real world.
  • Don’t keep them from social media.  Face it, despite your best efforts, some day, some where, some how, your child will end up on a social media site, or a porn site and if they’ve never experienced it, never been told about it, and how to deal with what they might find there — well, then you have a problem.
  • If you choose to let your kids play single shooter or other violent video games, talk to them about the difference between on-screen and real violence.  Discussing what’s going in Darfur, for instance, might balance out the emotionless nature of video game violence and make them think about what violence really means.
  • Turn off your own devices and talk to your kids.  Yes, sometimes texting is the simplest, most stress free way to connect with a surly teen.  But you can’t make it a substitute for real conversation.

Beth Blecherman, a family tech and social media expert and advocate, says the tech talk is the new sex talk.  And I agree.  But sometimes, the tech talk is a sex talk. And a gun violence talk, and a morals talk.  And yes, it’s hard to have those talks.  And no, your kid doesn’t really want to talk about all that either.  But nobody said everything about parenting would be easy.  And nobody said your kid has to like every conversation you have.

But somebody has to say: “This is right, this is wrong.  This is reality, this is fantasy.  This social media world is your world – and here are some tools to help you live in it.”


  1. Neshama Mousseau says

    Your blog post has been haunting me all morning. I wish everyone in America could read this.

  2. says

    Oh Nancy this is unbelievable. Required reading. Thank you.

    This: “The standard treatment for those traumatized by abuse, was to remind them that what happened was in the past. Now – there is no past.”

    That is simply haunting.

  3. says

    wonderful post. thank you so much for the thoughtful writing and scary stats. My girls are teenagers, we have talked about all these different topics. I know I am doing what I can to help them stay safe on and off the internet and in life.

    But I still want them to live in the happy bubble. Just like when they were toddlers and I wanted them to live in bubble wrap so they never fell down and skinned their knees.

  4. lindastoria says

    I htink that once you post evidence of your crime on the internet, you have crossed the line from the local criminal issue of rape to a federal issue of human rights violation (of, rape per se, is already a human rights violation, but let’s not further muddy already well stirred legal waters). I am amazed we haven;t heard a peep from Washington about the Attorney-general;s office taking the cases away from local yokels in these matters and trying them in a federal court and making them subject to federal time.

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