Earlier this week, on the heels of guilty verdicts in the Steubenville case of two football players who sexually assaulted a girl and broadcast it on social media, teenagers in the town of Torrington, Connecticut, were blowing up Facebook and Twitter with vile, victim-blaming comments about a 13-year-old who says she was raped by two 18-year-old football players. If we hadn’t been aware before, this week has made clear that, in the digital era, the accuser and the accused are not the only parties involved in sexual assault cases. We’re all bystanders on social networks.
Social media has been rightly hailed for bringing the Steubenville crime to light. Texts, tweets, and photos were essential to establishing that this was not a consensual act and not a “he said/she said” story. Yet paradoxically, both the Steubenville and Torrington rape cases have escalated the narrative — one that’s swirled around ever since the days of A/S/L queries in an AOL chatrooms — that the Internet is jeopardizing the privacy and safety of teens. And, in particular, teen girls.
Before it was even available in every home, let alone every purse and pocket in America, adults were worried that the Internet would enable sexual assault and stalking of naïve teens, who would log on and reveal details about themselves to older predators. As we welcomed Web 2.0 and smartphones and broadband into our lives, it became clear that their peers perhaps posed a greater risk, as social media became the place where bullying and rumor-mongering — practices as old as schoolyard itself — became easy to spread at the click of a button. The case of Amanda Todd took these fears to a horrifying extreme: The Canadian teenager was so brutally harassed after a topless photo of her made the rounds in her high school that she eventually committed suicide.
Even though the Steubenville case involved the malicious spread of information online — photos of the passed-out victim were plastered all over social media without her consent — the fact that the case ended in two rape convictions notably revealed that social media is not always negative for young women. “Cellphone videos can be forwarded to authorities, not circulated as jokes,” writes Amanda Hess at Slate. “Text messages can be used to identify rapists, not shame victims. And photos can establish central facts, not publicize humiliation.”
When issuing the Steubenville verdict, Judge Thomas Lipps warned teens to think about “how you record things on the social media so prevalent today.” Lipps, with his finger-wagging tone, is not alone in his fears about the effects of Instagram and Twitter and Facebook. As columnist Kathleen Parker writes this week in the Washington Post, “What hasn’t been addressed is the factor of social media in the events themselves.” She wonders whether our tendency to ‘gram and tweet the tiniest details has detached us from events unfolding in front of our faces, some modern form of the psychological effect that murder victim Kitty Genovese ushered in almost 60 years ago. The implication is that all of the high schoolers who tweeted and retweeted and texted the violence that was perpetrated against this girl in Ohio would have somehow been more likely to intervene in a pre-digital era. Decades of research on the Bystander Effect has shown us that’s not true, which means the Internet is once again acquitted. Bullies, killers, and rapists are the problem, not the medium by which they broadcast their crimes.
In almost every prominent news story about how the dynamics of social media play out offline, young women are set up as victims rather than agents and drivers of technology. The case has been made repeatedly that the digital era puts young women at risk in new ways — they can be stalked with smartphones, slut-shamed on instant messenger, targeted by rapists on social media. But the Internet can also be a source of power and protection — and I’m not just talking about accountability in rape cases. (A new report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project finds that 34 percent of teen girls “mostly go online using their cell phone,” compared with 24 percent of teen boys. “This is notable since boys and girls are equally likely to be smartphone owners,” the study says.) I use an app called CheckOn.Me, which notifies a select group of contacts if I fail to log in to the app after, say, meeting up with some unknown CraigsList seller about buying a chair. More generally, social media allows me a way to casually check up on friends. If I know a friend of mine was on a blind date the night before, I confess that I am slightly relieved when I see a new tweet from her in the morning or that she’s liked something on Facebook. For all the headlines about women being creeped online, it’s easy to forget that, far more often, social media provides new ways to blow the whistle.
The Internet isn't some lawless netherworld, it’s merely a reflection of social dynamics — and yes, sometimes crimes — that occur in the offline world. Put another way, by Sarah Gram in an essay about teen girls and selfies, “Do we honestly think that by ceasing to take and post selfies, the bodies of young women would cease to be spectacles?” If we didn’t have Instagram pictures and tweets about it, the rape that occurred in Steubenville wouldn’t be any less real. It just would have been less documented. I agree with Judge Lipps that we should all think about how we’re using social media: Rather than just recognizing its potential to hurt and expose, start appreciating how it enables us to help keep each other safe.
Most Viewed Stories
How Angelina Jolie Won the First Big Battle in Her Divorce
25 Famous Women on Being Alone
Everything We Know About Brad Pitt’s Plane Incident
It’s Time to Get Over Your White Feelings and Start Taking Action for Black Lives
22 Intimate Lost Photos of Marilyn Monroe
Jaden Smith on the Many Subtle Flavors of Water
Taylor Swift’s Squad Begged Kim Kardashian for Mercy
Gigi Hadid Fought Back Against a Creepy Stranger Who Grabbed Her
The 6 Best Denim Shops on Etsy
Beyoncé and Tina Knowles Did A Normal Mother/Daughter Thing
From Our Partners
powered by PubExchange
The Cut’s Latest Love and War FeaturesAva DuVernay on Hollywood Racism, Modern-Day Slavery, and Why She’s Still an Optimist
The director, whose new documentary The 13th chronicles America’s history of racial subjugation, talks to Rebecca Traister about Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and the modern criminal-justice system.What No One Tells Couples Trying to Conceive
It helps to be rich.The Hidden Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race
A segregated unit of mathematicians born of desperation during World War II became the secret to NASA’s success.Slut-Shaming Squids Are Everywhere
The “Bermuda Square” comic strip is back.Santigold’s New Video Is the Result of a Spontaneous Run-in With Kara Walker
The collaboration that dreams are made of.Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield Spotted Together Again, Love Might Be Real
They could be back together ahh!Teen, Forced to Go on Vacation With Her Family, Calls 911
The logical decision.Report: Hearst Fired Seventeen EIC Michelle Tan During Her Maternity Leave
Tan had been at the magazine for about two years.Good Morning America Host Amy Robach Apologizes for Saying ‘Colored People’ on Air
She quickly apologized.Unknown NFL Player Tries to Get Attention by Asking Aly Raisman Out in Video
That’s one way to do it.
Marissa Cooper is poised for a comeback ... maybe.California Votes to Remove Time Limit on Prosecuting Rape Cases
In light of the Bill Cosby case.Beyoncé’s Behind-the-Scenes Lemonade Photos Belong in a Museum
She had the "Boycott Beyoncé" sign already in formation on set.The Rise of the Male Celebrity Full-Frontal
An ex-publicist explains.Gabby Douglas Will Be a Miss America Judge
The gold-medal gymnast will help choose the 2017 pageant winner.Camille Becerra’s Photo Diary of Rockaway Beach
An ideal trip to add and cross off your summer bucket list.Sorry Nerds, Ian McKellen Won’t Officiate Your Expensive Lord of the Rings–Themed Wedding
Not even for $1.5 million.Miles Teller Is Still Upset About Being Called a Dick
He wants to set the record straight.Why Parents Shouldn’t Talk About Weight With Their Teens
New guidelines seek to banish weight talk.UVA Student Assaulted at Knifepoint During Orientation Weekend
But some students weren't notified until 24 hours later.