Learn about the hazards of the Internet, cyberbullying, sexting, and tips for safe internet use.
Are there laws that protect me while I am on the internet?
Yes, there are several Virginia laws designed to protect internet users.
Section 18.2-152.4 of the Code of Virginia prohibits computer trespass by making it a Class 1 misdemeanor (up to 12 months in jail) for any person, with malicious intent, or through deceptive means without authority, to do any of the following:
- temporarily or permanently remove, halt, or disable any computer data, computer programs or computer software from a computer or computer network;
- cause a computer to malfunction, regardless of how long the malfunction persists;
- alter, disable, or erase any computer data, computer programs or computer software;
- effect the creation or alteration of a financial instrument or of an electronic transfer of funds;
- use a computer or computer network to cause physical injury to the property of another;
- use a computer or computer network to make or cause to be made an unauthorized copy, in any form, including, but not limited to, any printed or electronic form of computer data, computer programs or computer software residing in, communicated by, or produced by a computer or computer network;
- install or cause to be installed, or collect information through, computer software that records all or a majority of the keystrokes made on the computer of another; or
- install or cause to be installed on the computer of another, computer software for the purpose of (i) taking control of that computer so that it can cause damage to another computer or (ii) disabling or disrupting the ability of the computer to share or transmit instructions or data to other computers or to any related computer equipment or devices, including but not limited to printers, scanners, or fax machines.
This crime is a Class 6 felony (one to five years imprisonment) if any of these actions cause damage to another person’s property valued at $1,000 or more or if you install, or cause to be installed, software described above on five computers or more. It is also a Class 6 felony if any such actions target the government or utility company computers or networks.
Technical measures implemented by electronic mail service providers to screen e-mails (SPAM) and actions taken by parents to monitor the computer usage of their minor children are not prohibited by this section of the Code of Virginia.
Another law prohibits SPAM, unsolicited commercial e-mail or “junk mail” from companies or persons with whom the recipient does not have an existing business or personal relationship. Section 18.2-152.3:1(A), of the Code of Virginia makes it a Class 1 misdemeanor to use a computer or computer network with the intent to falsify or forge electronic mail transmission information in connection with the transmission of unsolicited commercial electronic mail (SPAM) through or into the computer network of an electronic mail service provider or its subscribers, or to knowingly sell, give or distribute or possess with the intent to sell, give or distribute any software designed for this purpose.
What if I get e-mail from a person or business I don’t know?
Many e-mails from persons or businesses that are not known to the recipient are called SPAM. It is best not to open these e-mails at all; never open any attachments as these have been known to contain computer viruses and “worms” that can damage your computer.
“Phishing” is another form of SPAM that involves sending an e-mail falsely claiming to be a legitimate organization such as a bank or an Internet provider. Phishing is prohibited by Code of Virginia § 18.2-152.5:1 and is a Class 6 felony. It prohibits using trickery or deception to gather identifying information. The sender asks the recipient to provide his or her name, address, birthdate, password, Social Security number, bank account numbers, or credit card account numbers to “verify” information or to take some action that appears legitimate.
If the recipient provides this information, it can be used to steal his or her identity. Do not provide personal information in response to an unsolicited e-mail. If you do reveal personal information online, make sure you are at a legitimate website where security measures are actively protecting users.
What if I receive a threatening e-mail or message?
These types of messages are commonly known as “cyberbullying” and may include cyberstalking.
The Code of Virginia § 18.2-152.7:1 states that computer harassment occurs when any person uses a computer or computer network with the intent to coerce, intimidate, or harass another person, to communicate obscene, vulgar, profane, lewd, lascivious, or indecent language, to make any suggestion or proposal of an obscene nature, or to threaten any illegal or immoral act. This is a Class 1 misdemeanor.
If you receive any type of threatening e-mails or instant messages (IMs), immediately tell your parents, your teachers, a counselor, or any other adult who can help you.
If you are considering sending a message like this, know that you could be committing a crime. Cyberbullying includes:
- sending mean, vulgar, or threatening messages or images;
- posting sensitive, private information about another person;
- pretending to be someone else in order to make that person look bad; or
- intentionally excluding someone from an online group.
My friends and I use social media all the time. Are there any risks we should know about?
Social media can become a problem if used to cyberbully or to harass someone or to engage in inappropriate or sexually explicit conversations.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children advises teens to:
- Only message and add to your friend list people you know in real life and who are approved by your parents.
- Use privacy settings to limit contact to only those on your friend list.
- Make sure you are familiar with the blocking features available on most social media websites and report and block unknown senders.
Are there risks in posting videos and photographs online?
Yes, there are risks. While webcams, cell phones and digital cameras allow you to post videos, photographs and audio files online and help family members and friends stay in touch, there are potential risks. Remember the following:
- Digital files can easily be saved and distributed to other people, beyond the intended circle of trusted friends and family.
- Saving, sending and posting any images that are sexually provocative or inappropriate may not only be embarrassing but may also lead to legal problems and other unexpected consequences.
- Assume that anything posted online is there forever. Employers and colleges are increasingly checking the web for images of or information about applicants. Images posted by teens may be seen years later with embarrassing and damaging consequences.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children advises:
- Ask yourself: “Would I be embarrassed if my friends or family saw these pictures or videos?” If the answer is yes, then stop.
- Be aware of what is in the camera’s field of vision and remember to turn the camera off when not in use.
- Do not post identity-revealing or sexually provocative photographs.
- Don’t post photographs of friends without permission from their parents.
- Remember: Once images are posted, you lose control of them and can never get them back.
When is it illegal to take and/or post an image?
It is unlawful for a person to publish on the Internet a videographic or still image made in violation of the current law prohibiting filming, videotaping, or photographing a nonconsenting person in certain situations where there is an expectation of privacy. This is a Class 6 felony when the violation involves a person under 18. (Code of Virginia § 18.2-386.1).
What is sexting?
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (2009) defines sexting as “youth writing sexually explicit messages, taking sexually explicit photos of themselves or others in their peer group, and transmitting those photos and/or messages to their peers.”
Often this happens when a teen “texts” a sexually explicit image via cell phone, digital camera, or video game – perhaps to impress a boyfriend or girlfriend, or as a joke to a friend. However, it’s easy for the recipient to forward that image – by accident or on purpose – and soon it’s circulating through school.
It is important to note that sending pornographic pictures of minors through Snapchat or other messaging services with disappearing pictures is still illegal and can still result in grave consequences. Most of these services store sent photos in their servers, and many people have phone apps that allow them to screenshot or save pictures without the sender’s knowledge.
How common is sexting?
- Nearly 1 in 7 children ages 9-12 shared their own nude photos in 2020, and there was a sharp increase of children who admitted seeing a non-consensually re-shared nudes of others;
- 1 in 5 girls ages 13-17 shared their own nudes;
- 1 in 10 boys ages 13-17 shared their own nudes;
- 40% of teens (13-17) agreed “it’s normal for people my age to share nudes with each other;”
- 25% of 9-17 year olds reported having an online sexually explicit interaction with someone they believed to be an adult;
- The number of “sexts” children attempted to send (including girls as young as 6) rose 183% during the COVID lockdown; and
- Nearly 40% of children have received and/or sent a “sext” by the age of 13.
Source: https://enough.org/stats_social_media (Enough is Enough: Making the Internet Safer for Children and Families. Accessed June 28, 2022 ).
What are the consequences of sexting?
The legal consequences of sexting are very serious. It is against the law in Virginia to produce, reproduce, store or share lewd or explicit pictures of minors (those under 18). Sexting can be prosecuted as child pornography, a felony that can result in years in prison and having your name on the sex offender registry for life.
This means that if someone simply knowingly has such images on their cell phones, shares them with other students via cell phone, or creates them using their cell phones, they may be found guilty of a felony. (Code of Virginia §§ 18.2-374.1 and 18.2-374.1:1).
Other laws may also apply, depending on the circumstances:
- § 18.2-152.7:1, if the sexting involves bullying or harassment; and
- § 18.2-374.3, if the sexting involves an adult (18 or older) who has solicited images from a child.
In addition to legal consequences, students involved in sexting may be suspended from school; they may be dismissed from jobs and organizations; they may be denied admission to college; and they may lose job opportunities later in life.
How can I avoid trouble with sexting?
Think about the consequences of taking, sending or forwarding a sexually explicit image of someone underage, even if it’s of you.
Never take images of yourself that you wouldn’t want everyone — your classmates, your teachers, your family and employers — to see.
Before hitting SEND, remember that you can’t control where this image may travel. What you send to a boyfriend or girlfriend could easily end up with their friends, and their friends.
If you forward a sexual image of someone underage, you are as responsible for this image as the original sender. You could face child pornography charges, go to jail and have to register as a sex offender.
Report any nude photos or sexually explicit images or text you receive to an adult you trust. Do not delete the message. Instead, get your parents or guardians, teachers and school counselors involved immediately. If you report these images you will not be in trouble with the law.
What can I do to stay safe online?
The National Crime Prevention Council advises that you remember that the Internet is accessed by millions of people all over the world, not just your friends and family. While many Internet users are friendly, some may want to hurt you. Below are some ways to stay cyber-safe:
- Never post or share personal information about yourself or others online. (Personal information includes your full name, address, telephone number, school name, parents’ names, credit card number, or Social Security Number.)
- Never share your Internet passwords with anyone, except your parents.
- Never respond to messages from unfamiliar persons.
- Never enter a website that charges for services without getting your parents’ permission first.
- Never meet anyone face-to-face whom you only know online.
- Talk to your parents about what you do online.