Teens & The Law: 4 Ways Your Kid Can Legally Blow It

Jan 29, 2016
Shai Harary

teens and law
There’s a saying I’ve taken to as the father of three teenagers: When your kids are small they need your time and attention. By the time they get to high school, they mostly need your money.

As a lawyer with three minors in my household, I am cognizant of the fact that while I’d like my hard-earned dollars to support their paths to success, I, like every other parent, may inadvertently be financing activities and situations that would point them in a very different direction – to a courtroom or worse.

My kids all have unlimited Internet access, smart phones, social media accounts, free run of the house when my wife and I are out, access to a vehicle and other amenities.

Which makes them pretty much average American teens.

If you have kids, then you are probably like my wife and me; you’ve done your best to instill a moral compass that hopefully kicks in at critical junctures during their adolescent decision making processes and ticks stronger and louder than the pulsing throb of their hormones.

In the larger scheme of things, you’ve probably done just fine. It’s likely your kids will steer clear of major crimes like armed robbery, murder, kidnapping or treason.

But what about the kinds of things you may have done as a kid that bent or stretched legal boundaries?

Think back… and now throw technology and other trappings of today’s lifestyle on top of it.

Have I scared you yet?

While that’s not my intention, nor am I suggesting that you police your child with an iron fist (as that kind of thing can really backfire), my recommendation is for you to get a handle on what legal issues your child could potentially step into, either knowingly or unwittingly. Then you’ve got to make it a point to discuss these things with him/her as young and as often as possible so that s/he can make better choices – either compared to you or simply for her/himself.

Here are four of the most common and potentially legally problematic scenarios for you and your child to consider:

1) Sexting: Teens aren’t known for impulse control, but they are known for exploring their sexuality. In the age of social media, sexting and other sharing of nude photos is extremely accessible – and tempting. Studies say that 30% of American teens have sent naked pictures of themselves to another teen. And while at least 20 states have passed laws on sexting so that teens won’t be arrested for child pornography, which would require them to register as sex offenders, there are still steep consequences… especially if you’re in a state like North Carolina or Colorado. In the former, two sweethearts were charged with exploiting a minor, and in the latter, more than 100 students in one high school were busted for exchanging nude photos. In that case, some kids may be facing felony charges if an adult was involved; if there was coercion, illegal sexual activity, or bullying; or if pictures were posted on public websites.

Just like immaturity and moronic behavior is not a solid defense for your teen, ignorance is not one on your end, either.

2) Weed & Teens: With the shift in marijuana being legally available for purchase, decriminalized and/or approved for medical use in 20 states so far, you might think that more kids are smoking pot than ever before. So far and statistically speaking, this is not the case. But while the laws may be on the side of adults who indulge, teens may face a different scenario – for example, in Washington state, where pot is legal, teenagers caught with marijuana are subject to laws that could land them five years in prison. Jail isn’t the worst possible consequence, either: studies have shown that regular cannabis use (one or more times a week) in the teen years has a negative effect on brain development, cognition and academic performance. One study from Duke University compared IQ levels of people from childhood to age 38 that regularly smoked pot to those who didn’t. On average, those that used marijuana as kids and continued to do so into adulthood lost about eight (8) IQ points compared to NO loss of IQ points by those who didn’t smoke pot.

It’s definitely high time you discuss drug use and abuse with your child – so be sure to remind him or her that like drinking under the age of 21, smoking pot is also a criminal offense for a minor, regardless of what state you live in. And in some states, like California, the implications run deep: any minor (age under 21) convicted of any marijuana, alcohol, or other drug offense faces a 12-month drivers license suspension, regardless of whether the offense was driving-related.

3) Drinking & Driving: While we all know the problem and consequences of drinking and driving, there is one recent case that should strike fear in both parents AND kids’ hearts alike – the so-called “affluenza” case of Ethan Couch. The then-16-year-old Texas teen killed four people and severely injured a fifth when he was driving with three times the legal blood alcohol limit. A psychologist for the defense argued that Ethan’s affluent upbringing led to an irresponsible lifestyle that was enabled by the boy’s parents. And while the criminal sentencing was outrageously light – the teen got a court order to go to rehab and ten years probation – there have been six civil suits against the Couch family filed and settled. Last December, Ethan and his mother Tonya were caught in an attempt to flee the U.S. to Mexico; she has since been arrested for hindering apprehension of a felon and he is facing jail time as soon as he’s returned to the States.

This makes an excellent case a judgment-free ride home policy. And just FYI, major rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft officially prohibit minors from using their services. But I would be less concerned with violating Uber and Lyft’s age policies than I would about your kid landing in jail for driving under the influence. If you are concerned about this you can check out local companies like LA’s HopSkipDrive created especially for transporting kids under the age of 18.

4) Cyberbullying: If you’re like me, your children basically live on social media. And we all know that teens can be snarky, mean and worse – combine that with the power of instant words and images and how usernames can conceal someone’s identity, and you have a toxic cocktail brewing at your kid’s fingertips. For every high profile, horrendous cyberbullying case (Jessica Logan, Tyler Clementi, and Amanda Todd, to name just a few), there are perhaps less horrible yet still very harmful instances that happen every single day. Should your teen cyberbully someone else, s/he could be brought up on a series of civil and criminal charges, from defamation all the way to harassment and worse.

This is the perfect time to remind your teen if s/he has nothing nice to say then don’t say it… type it… upload it… or comment it! And while you’re at it, remind them of both Golden Rules: the biblical one, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and the digital one, online is forever. (Even with Snapchat – make sure you tell your kids that, too!)

While these four issues top my list of what teens and their parents may face, there are many more – all you and I have to do is refer back to that list of crazy things we did when we were teenagers.

And hire yourself a lawyer, stat.

(Just kidding! But talk to your teen, please!)

Photo credit: Projuventute