Social Media as the new witness to sexual assault cases

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Social media frequently gets blamed for robbing our children of their innocence and safety. Adolescent mistakes and missteps that used to be quickly forgotten now live forever on social media. Stories that used to be confined to one school, one community are now blasted around the globe. This is an era where our mistakes live on forever. Social media has made all of us witnesses to other people’s humiliation, successes and failings.

An upside to this mass sharing of personal information, is the increasing use of social media to support sexual assault victims. Recently, a jury in Steubenville, Ohio found two high school football players guilty of sexual assault on an intoxicated teenager. Most sexual assault cases revolve around whether the jury believes the victim or the accused. But in the Steubenville case, another witness took the stand and testified on behalf of the victim. That witness was social media and the texts, tweets, and photos that were shown to the jury made it clear that this was not a consensual act.

In an opinion piece in the Washington Post, Kathleen Parker acknowledged social media’s role in convicting the accused, but she also wondered whether social media should be blamed for the fact that the bystanders to the crime chose to video tape and snap pictures rather than stop the attack. She speculates that in a pre-digital era one of these bystanders would have stepped in and stopped the crime. However, research shows that the bystander effect is not a new problem and social media is not to blame. The sexual assault would have happened without social media; social media just gave the victim someone to support her story.

Since we entered the computer age, parents have worried about the impact of computers on their children’s safety. As the number of computers and the use of social media increases, so does the reach of online predators. Recent cases show that we should be more worried about our children’s peers who use social media as a way to bully and humiliate. In the Amanda Todd case, Amanda killed herself after a topless photo was circulated around her school. In Connecticut, a 13-year old girl has been victimized by a vicious cyber assault after she claimed she was sexually assaulted by two 18-year old football players.

These recent cases make it clear that social media isn’t to blame for these events. Rape, bullying and other crimes existed long before the first computer or smart phone. Social media, for good and bad, has made our lives more public. It makes it harder to hide from our mistakes and humiliations. But it also makes it more difficult for bullies, rapists and other criminals to escape their misdeeds.

We need to appreciate the Internet and social media as a means to protect ourselves and our children. Social media, including apps like CheckOn.Me, allow us to check-in with family and friends and, as importantly, have them check in on us. Social media exposes us, but it can also protect us. It’s not only bad people keeping an eye on us. More often than not, it’s a close friend or loved one. We all need to appreciate the power of social media, both its power to be exploitive and hurtful as well as it’s ability to protect.

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