Cyberbullying: Cincinnati Internet defamation lawyer warns teens the 'camera is always on'

'Don't ever assume you're anonymous'

CINCINNATI -- Whitney Gibson wants teens to know one thing: The camera is always on.  

Just after he was promoted to partner at Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease in Cincinnati, Gibson embarked on a new mission -- warning teens they are far from a nameless, faceless poster on the Internet, despite claims by sites that they can post anonymously and without repercussion. 

And he's bringing that message to area high schools as part of Social Media Mania , which aims to teach students how to use social media wisely and to avoid situations that could cost them their future. Gibson is on the panel of expert speakers with the group, that began in Beverly Hills, Calif. 
 
"With Vorys, Ruah Woods  and Dr. (Andrew) Sodergren, we are planning on taking Social Media Mania to high schools all over Cincinnati," Gibson said. The program started at Mason High School in March and by fall, he plans on making rounds to 30 area schools.
 
As lead attorney  for the Internet defamation practice at Vorys, Gibson said he has worked across the country helping pro-athletes, TV producers and major financial corporations from being defamed online. As "anonymity" cases increase, he has taken a closer look at the issue of online bullying.
 
The biggest problem with online bullying, Gibson said, is a common "misbelief" that no one will know who you are. He warns, "Don't ever assume you're anonymous on any website or app."

"Everyone is promoting 'Oh, no one's going to be able to figure out who you are' is very dangerous for a lot of kids. Don't ever assume you're anonymous. Don't do it under the disbelief that it's not going to be traced back to you," he said, noting there are ways for law enforcement and investigators to track IP address and the true identities of "anonymous" users.

For those who use the popular, bully-tolerant applications that seemingly promise anonymity, you are not as anonymous as you may think. 
 
If you read the legal agreements or terms of service on popular sites like Whisper , Ask.fm or Secret, the advertised anonymity will be reversed if misconduct is noted through the app. All three of the above mentioned apps state they will give user information to law enforcement if needed and that anything posted online is the responsibility of the user. 
 
 
Gibson advises clients to use the "front page test" before hitting the send button. He said, if teens -- or adults -- are doing something wrong, they need to assume it will show up on the front page of a news website or newspaper.
 
He warns teens that the "camera is always on you," using the Reese Witherspoon  arrest video as an example. Last spring, Witherspoon was arrested for disorderly conduct in Atlanta during a traffic stop. In the police officer video , Witherspoon is recorded saying: "Don't you know who I am? You're about to find out who I am." She later issued an apology and pleaded no contest to charges.
 
Postings Could Find Way Into Classroom
 
As part of the Social Media Mania, Gibson demonstrates how easy it is for an authoritative figure to find postings that could harm their reputations. During his presentation at Mason High School, he pulled tweets from high schooler accounts.
 
                    "I wanna be drunk when I wake up on the right side of the wrong bed.

                   "Im a innocent sophomore during school days & get s*** faced over the weekends. No one from mason knows- Hannah Montana best of both worlds?"  — Mason Confessions              

 
Mason is not alone. Many accounts like this have launched across the nation, with ages or grades as identifiers, as opposed to names. None are sanctioned by schools.
 
Creating Contracts For Social Media 
 
Parents can help curb access and become more aware of what their teen is doing online, said Dr. Andrew Sodergren, a family psychologist at Ruah Woods.
 
He will be teaming up with Gibson this fall in the Social Media Mania presentations. While Gibson warns students on the legal consequences, Sodergren will discuss emotional repercussions from participating in online bullying.
 
Bullying creates a pool of negative effects including increasing rates of depression, anger and self-esteem issues, he said. 
 
He suggests that parents create contracts for teen's phones and computers,  which includes a list of rules, then have the child sign it. A contract might include the following stipulations, he said:
  • A parent or guardian has the authority once every two weeks to check the teen's phone. 
  • Parents have the right to delete apps they find inappropriate. 
  • If unapproved or inappropriate online behavior persists, the parent has the right to take the phone or computer away from the child for an allotted amount of time.
If the child doesn't agree, they lose the phone or computer.
 
"It keeps the pendulum from swinging," he said, from neglect of a child to becoming a "helicopter parent." 
 
There are also apps
and programs that parents can download to be more socially in-tune with their children, such as MamaBear , SpectorPro , WebWatcherNearParent  and Social Shield .
 
Sodergren said he believes the primary issue with cyberbullying is the "bystander effect," when others who witness something "wrong" do nothing to help. 
 
"If you see inappropriate behavior, don't inadvertently pass it along. Don't click 'Like' on Facebook. Don't do nothing. Do something," Sodergren said. "It takes a lot of courage. It helps overcome fears of speaking out when we need to. It shows a sign of character and strength." 
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