What Adolescents Need to Know About Uttering Threats Online

Today’s teenagers live in a very different world from their parents. Where previous generations could count on a measure of anonymity during their adolescence, modern teens have access to global communications platforms while they are still in the midst of their cognitive and emotional development.

This creates incredible challenges for mothers and fathers who want to help their kids navigate the vagaries of social media, and one of the biggest issues parents need to confront is the way online speech can have real-world consequences. 

In a recent case in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, for example, a twelve-year-old was charged with uttering threats due to a social media post that made another student feel unsafe. Even if the charges don’t lead to a conviction, this young person’s life has already been indelibly marked by a decision they may not have understood the full implications of.  

For this reason, it is more important than ever for parents to teach their children about the legal consequences of online speech. And to do this, it is necessary to understand what the legal definition of uttering threats is in the first place. 

What Does “Uttering Threats” Mean?

Casual threats — “If you damage my car, I’m going to kill you!” — are a normal part of everyday life and speech. Most of the time, the person uttering the threat and the person receiving it both understand that it is a form of playful hyperbole. 

But in the eyes of the law, a threat is any utterance (verbal or otherwise) that causes a person to fear for their bodily safety or the safety of their pet or property, and is considered a form of assault.

This means that threat exists in the perception of the person receiving it, rather than the intentions of the person uttering it: if a twelve-year-old tells one of his classmates that he’s going to beat her up, what matters is whether she believes him, not whether he “really” intended to do it. 

Threats and the Internet

The Internet strips away many of the social cues we use to determine how seriously a person means what they say. Adolescents need to understand that just because they don’t think someone should take a hurtful comment seriously, that doesn’t mean the person receiving it won’t feel threatened — especially if the comment is part of a pattern of what is perceived as bullying behavior. 

Given how ambiguous these things can be, it is important to make sure your kids have a basic grasp of how laws around threats and assault apply to them. And if your teen does end up begin charged with an offense, it is essential to retain legal help from a criminal defense lawyer like Jeff Reisman Law who understands these types of charges. 

In the brave new world of 2021, it is more important than ever to instill in your children a respect for the consequences — emotional, social, and legal — hurtful words can have. Explaining that uttering threats is, in fact, a crime, and teaching your kids to recognize how online behavior can impact their future, needs to be part of this conversation.