Teens, Technology Panics, and Twitter Crime

Coming to terms with new communications technology has been a cornerstone of the ‘new normal’ across the economy. And while this has undoubtedly forced some welcome modernisations in working practices and carbon output, it has also brought online harms into the spotlight. As we contemplate a second wave of coronavirus, we are already seeing a first wave of social media epiphanies, with many realising the behavioural and emotional costs of maintaining an online ever presence – and logging off.

If professionals are feeling the strain after just a few months of increased time online, then spare a thought for the poor teenagers who spend years operating at this level of connectedness. The potential for a subconscious poisoning of the adolescent mind is clearly concerning, especially in a law enforcement context. Theorised links between social media and gang violence abound.

Indeed, we didn’t need a pandemic for the social harms of technology to be clear amongst adolescents. Long before COVID arrived, researchers from San Francisco found that a group of 200 6-16 year-olds with greater exposure to new media had measurably greater anxiety and experienced more violent dreams. Real-life emulation of the (often fictional) behaviour of others was common, and where the content was about crime, there was evidence of the teens planning violence of their own in the real world. One boy, 11 years old, had gone so far as to acquire a pistol.

Perhaps, however, it’s not all bad news. After all, social media can be used just as easily to spread messages dissuading crime, and time spent scrolling through Facebook is time that can’t be used running drugs. I would suggest that the fear of a silent corruption of young minds is misplaced. In fact, contrary to popular opinion, developmental psychologists are still split on whether the use of digital technology results in reliably adverse outcomes at all. One high-profile analysis found that the harmful effect of adolescents spending time online was only marginally more severe than that of eating potatoes, and that psychological well-being was in fact better predicted by whether or not a teen has asthma. And as for the San Francisco research? It was conducted in 1941, and the ‘new media’ in question was radio. When it comes to fearing teens with tech, we’ve been through it all before.

There is, however, a second online problem for law enforcement. While fears of a subliminal incitement to violence might lack evidence, the real danger of social networking might be that it is used exactly as intended. We don’t really know if using social media can corrupt an otherwise innocent person, but it’s glaringly obvious that it can facilitate crime amongst those who are already of a criminal disposition. In a pre-internet age, recruitment for organised crime would have been slow, risky, and limited to people in the wrong place at the wrong time. Today, however, those who need someone to their dirty work have online access to an almost unlimited and unsuspecting job market.

Digital forensics experts are aware of how private direct messaging is used to plan and execute crime, but less savvy criminals are also more than willing to use public online forums. Elements of the 2011 London riots were famously orchestrated via BlackBerry Messenger, and there was also extensive Twitter activity detailing the time, location, and objectives of some rioters. The same thing is going on today amongst the more violent wings of the George Floyd protests and counter protests. Perhaps this obviously self-incriminating behaviour is sheer stupidity, but I would suggest there’s more to it than that.

In the case of protest-turned-riots, there is an abundance of legitimate, non-criminal planning taking place. In 2014, protestors used ‘#stoptheparade’ to co-ordinate a protest against New York’s annual Thanksgiving Parade. When legal ‘plotting’ is shown to be normal and widespread, those planning violence or property damage lazily default to using the same tactics to spread their plans. In my own research into how politicians use the internet, I’m frequently surprised by how often (especially in Twitter’s early days) they posted as if no-one was watching. If those with national profiles forget that there might be consequences to what they write online, then perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by the apparent carelessness of criminal rioters.

How, then, can we stop impressionable adolescents from being targeted online for both organised and mass crime, and ultimately prevent them from falling into criminal behaviours in the first place? The blunt policy tool is to dissuade social media usage, but the allure of the internet is surely too strong to be broken by a PR campaign. One innovative solution might be to show teens how easy it is for forensics experts to track them down by getting them to simulate an investigation. Susceptibility to a different online harm – fake news – can be reduced by playing a similar simulation-game, in which the player learns the strategies used by disinformation accounts online. Of course, for the most determined and creative would-be criminals, such an experience might teach them how to evade detection, but for the majority who find themselves pulled into crime by its apparent convenience, deterrence is just case of breaking that illusion.

It’s easy to fall into a ‘technology panic’ when faced with the problem of adolescent digital criminality, but as the experience of the radio demonstrates, such fear is unlikely to turn back the clock on promising tech. In the formation of policy, clearer heads must prevail – rather than fearing notional psychological harms, we should see the problem that’s hidden in plain sight, and then use tech of our own to beat it.

If this resonates with you let’s discuss

If this resonates with you, let’s discuss.