Social media can be a teen's best friend or worst enemy, Steubenville rape trial reveals

Chris Togneri
| Saturday, March 23, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

The Steubenville, Ohio, trial revealed in stark testimony the horrors of a girl's rape by two high school football players and its transformation into a spectacle among teenagers.

Yet some of the most startling evidence surfaced in cold, dispassionate numbers:

• 396,270 text messages;

• 308,586 digital photos; and

• 940 videos.

That's what investigators found upon confiscating 13 Steubenville teens' mobile devices, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said moments after a judge sentenced two Steubenville High School football stars for raping an intoxicated, unresponsive teenage girl.

Social media experts said the huge volume of data stored on the devices illustrates how teens use phones and social media sites to document their lives — even criminal details — often without considering lasting results.

Moreover, they said, it shows that parents have no idea what otherwise well-behaved kids are up to when hammering away on smartphones.

“Parents are clueless, totally clueless,” said Parry Aftab, a New Jersey social media expert who teaches about the effects online actions have on real life. “We see some kids who send 10,000 text messages a month; the average kid sends 4,000 a month. It's what they do. And today they do it all the time.”

A judge in juvenile court found Trent Mays, 17, and Malik Richmond, 16, delinquent on rape charges, the equivalent of a guilty verdict in adult court. Mays will serve a minimum of two years in a juvenile facility, and Richmond will serve at least one year. They must register as sexual offenders upon release.

Beyond the obvious message about the seriousness of sexual assault, the case could provide lessons for parents and teens about the dangers of social media, experts said.

“Sometimes something really horrible needs to happen for us to realize that we need a change,” said Heather Starr Fiedler, associate professor of multimedia at Point Park University. “This might be it. ... We really need to have some meaningful conversations with our kids about what social media is for, what's appropriate and when it's appropriate. It should be like the drugs talk, the sex talk, the driving talk. It's a talk we need to be having.”

Young people do not understand the permanence of online postings, she and others said. They post without pausing to consider that anybody in the world can view their thoughts and that someone can retrieve Facebook posts, tweets — even private text messages — after they are deleted for use against them, experts said.

“We now live in an age where we react, but we don't reflect. You're reacting now and trying to delete later,” said Doug Strahler, an instructor at Slippery Rock University who teaches a class on social media. “In less than five minutes you can have a blog or a Facebook account or a Twitter account, and you have a global audience.

“I tell my students, these are permanent records of your thoughts, your opinions, your beliefs. Whatever you post can be held against you in the future.”

Mays, for example, essentially wrote his confession.

In the days following unsupervised parties that many drunken teens attended in August, Mays texted friends to boast about sexual acts with the victim, acknowledging that she was highly intoxicated and semiconscious. As rumors of rape swept through town, he sent text messages to the victim, urging her not to go to police but admitting that he took a photo of her naked.

During his sentencing, Mays apologized to the victim for taking the photos and texting them to other teens.

“I see teenagers and, in my case, college students saying just a myriad of inappropriate things (online), and I'm dismayed when I see it,” Starr Fiedler said. “But this goes beyond anything I've ever seen. As a parent, I'm horrified.”

Some teens don't get it, officials said.

Authorities arrested two girls for threatening the victim on Twitter on the day Mays and Richmond were convicted, DeWine said. One message was reposted on Facebook.

Laurence Steinberg, a developmental psychologist at Temple University in Philadelphia and expert on adolescent behavior, said teens are less likely than adults to think of long-term consequences because their brains are not fully developed.

“Clearly they're not thinking ahead; (they're) just acting in the moment,” he said. “It doesn't excuse what they did at all. It does, nevertheless, help explain things that might be very puzzling to adults.”

One phone police investigated in the Steubenville case had nearly a quarter-million text messages on it, authorities testified.

Mays' phone had more than 60,000 text messages and nearly 3,000 photos, including two photos of the naked, passed-out victim. Investigators never found Richmond's phone; he told police he lost it.

The victim, a 16-year-old Catholic school girl from Weirton, W.Va., said she drank heavily that night, blacked out and did not remember the assaults.

Her memory returned in the morning when she awoke on a couch in a basement, naked and confused. She put on her pants, bra and shirt but never found her underwear, phone or shoes.

She said she pieced together what happened to her through social media posts and text messages.

Mays and Richmond assaulted the girl twice, witnesses testified — in a car while a buddy shot video on his phone and on the basement floor while other teens watched and took photos they circulated. Nobody tried to stop it.

Aftab said she is not surprised that no one intervened.

“Once they get behind the camera, they're no longer people; they're just directors in a reality show, and the (victim) is just someone they are digitally memorializing,” Aftab said. “Our kids are watching the Kardashians and the ‘Survivor' shows and the ‘Real Housewives' of whatever, and they're seeing them earn top billing and fame and fortune, and they think they can do the same by posting on YouTube and sharing with friends. They think: Everyone's going to want to be my friend because I have this information.

“When I was kid, if you had a pool, you were special. Now it's exciting, adrenaline-raging content, (and) it's frightening.”

Chris Togneri is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5632 or

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