Juveniles, the Internet, and Cybercrime

By Joseph Sarpong[*]

University of Nevada Las Vegas



The advancement of the Internet into technological devices has proven to create many problems with enforcement and prevention of cybercrimes. The purpose of this paper is to explore the limited research involving juveniles in cybercrime. Sexting, hacking, legislation, and victimization of juveniles will be explored by over viewing the increased reliance of the Internet into juveniles social lives.


Beginning of the Internet

The United States has always been on the cutting edge of technology. Following World War II an overwhelming amount of technologies, were developed to support the efforts of becoming a dominant military world power. What is known today as the Internet began development in the late 1950’s. During this time, point-to-point communication began between one terminal and one computer. By 1982 the Internet protocol, also known as TCP/IP address, was developed to allow communication on a worldwide network. It was at this time when the Internet was introduced. Forth going, the future of communication and technology would develop at an exponential rate. By 1986, the National Science foundation (NSF) helped begin an Internet infrastructure, which provided access to super computer sites for research by educational organizations. Educational institutions were now open to communication for the purpose of research. It was soon after that, the commercial Internet service providers (ISP’s) began to emerge allowing the Internet to be used in commercial only environments. By 1990, the Advance Research Projects Agency Network and the National Science Foundation Network were decommissioned allowing the Internet to be used outside commercial use, thereby introducing Internet and the World Wide Web into homes (Howe, 2010).

Since the 1990’s, the Internet has made radical changes to American culture. New ways of communication were developed including: electronic mail, voice over protocols, instant messaging, and the World Wide Web (www.) Within the development of the World Wide Web came the capabilities of discussion forums, online shopping, and social networking. Social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook revolutionized social networking, while EBay and Amazon expanded consumer’s abilities to purchase products through the World Wide Web. The expansion of information through the web became available at an exponential rate.   It is estimated by 1993 only 1% of information was carried by two-way communication. By 2000 this reached 57% and by 2007 over 98% of information was available over the Internet (Howe, 2010)

Although the advancement of the Internet created a faster way to share information and to communicate, other concerns were brought to attention.  With the advancement came new opportunities for individuals to commit crimes. Technology has driven companies to produce products in feasible quantities and at a cheaper cost. One example is laptops. With cheaper laptops available on the market more consumers can afford them resulting in higher demands. Similar products include iPads, cell phones, e-readers, TV’s, and home alarm systems, all of which use the Internet as the primary way to connect two-way communication. (Yang & Hoffstdat, 2006)

All of these products have, in one way or another, made daily lives easier, however the many concerns regarding the instant access of information should be addressed. The concern of committing crime or becoming a victim of crime by the use of technology has always been an underlying concern of the advancement of technology. According to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) there were about 303,000 complainants received in 2010 concerning victimization of cybercrimes. These complaints range from fraud, to “sexting” between teens and adults. Of those reported, 121,000 were referred to local, state, or federal law enforcement (IC3, 2009).

Many have the perception that adults are using technology to commit cybercrime, and although this is true, minors under the age of 18 have increased in both the offender and victim categories. Crimes committed by juveniles using technology have increased in recent years and have posed many problems for law enforcement. The 2009 FBI statistics produced by the Internet Crime Complaint Center reported an increase of nearly a quarter (22.3%) since 2008.  In the cyber world, cybercrimes have been described as complicated. These crimes are loosely defined as cybercrimes, because the crime typically involves the use of the Internet (Burden et al, 2003).

Cyber Sexting

The cybercrime of sexting has posed an especially difficult problem for law enforcement. This crime entails sending sexual gestures or suggestions and semi-or fully nude pictures via cellular devices or the Internet. There are many studies that have attempted to explain why sexting has been a popular activity to engage in by youths. According to Brown et al (2009), “the media have become important sex educators as they include frequent discussion and portrayals of sexual behavior that affect adolescent’s conceptions of sexual attractiveness, romantic relationships, and sexual behavior.” The largest channel where youths are able to obtain information is the Internet. There is an expansion on available channels for youth to communicate and share sexual exploration with the ease of access to technology and Internet (Brown at al, 2009).  

One specific channel that has received increased attention is cell phones.  Texting on cell phones by teens has become a major factor in their social lives (Lenhart 2009; Burden et al, 2003). To teens, the use of cell phones has seen dramatic change. This change is the result of integrated Internet access which allows social communication whenever wherever. Teens not only use cell phones to make calls but now use the Internet to explore sexual curiosity. The largest increase in ownership of cell phones has been seen within the past decade. (Lenhart, 2009)

The Pew Internet study looked further into ownership of cell phones and sexting by exploring how relevant sexting is among teens. Comparing 2004 to 2009, teens up to the age of 12 have seen an increase in ownership of a cell phone from 18% to 58% and teens, age 17 increased from 64% to 83%. As the age of teens increased, an increase in cell phone ownership among teens was discovered. Of the teens surveyed, only 4% between the ages of 12 and 17 said they have sent sexually suggestive, nude, or nearly nude images of themselves to someone via text. Of those 4%, 80% have received sexual content from sexting on their cellphones, reporting the cause of the behavior was boredom. Although the percentage of teens who engaged in sexting is low, caution should be taken when looking at these percentages. Youths may be less likely to admit engaging in sexual exploration in a self-report questionnaire (Lenhart, 2009). 

The ability for the youth to engage in such behavior has put parents in difficult circumstances. In most situations, parents are usually not as technologically advanced as their children, thereby creating a sense of ignorance on their part.  Not only are parents put in difficult circumstances, law enforcement is as well. Research exploring parent’s involvement in sexting has found parents who do not limit text and internet-access on their teen’s cellphones are more likely to have their children engage in the act of sexting. Reports have estimated this percentage to be as high as 72% (Lenhart, 2009; Brown et al, 2009).

Law enforcement agencies have been faced with tough circumstances as a result to the increased behavior of sexting. Agencies have become overloaded with complaints from parents concerning statutory laws resulting from sexting on cell phones or by other technological means. Parents have the right to press charges due to statutory laws if their children’s sexual partner or sexting recipient is over the statutory age set forth by legal precedent. Although an increase in complaints has been seen, law enforcement agencies have been restricted by what means they have to investigate the issue due to the effect of budget restrictions.  Law enforcement agencies have the responsibility of dealing with conventional crimes but now must address the over loading complaints resulting from different types of cybercrimes. Rather than pursuing sexting charges, law enforcement agencies have continued to focus their primary concerns on conventional crimes such as, burglary, robbery, and larceny etc. (Demarco, 2009)

Technology is being introduced to the youth at younger ages. Society will continue to see an increase in the amount of youths partaking in the sexting phenomenon as technology continues to become more affordable. This behavior can only be combated by consistent enforcement from parents as well as law enforcement. Other cybercrimes also have the possibility to increase as teens gain the opportunity to become exposed to technology earlier (Demarco,2009).


The crime of hacking has gained national attention in recent news. This crime entails modifying computer hardware or software with the purpose of gaining unauthorized access to a computer (Burden et al, 2003). The result from a hacking attack can lead to financial loss or identity theft. Hacking has seen increased popularity within the past decade. Multiple reasons have been brought up to explain the rise in hacking. One reason for the increase of hacking attempts has been the result of affordable and easily accessible computers, consistent in all research. Within the past 10 years the price of a personal computer has seen a significant (90%) reduction in price. Along with the reduction in price, the capabilities of computers have grown at an even faster rate, resulting in a new spectrum of crime opportunity (Perry, 2009).

Until recently the crime of hacking has been thought of as a crime committed by adults. However, it has been discovered that teens have begun to commit this type of cybercrime as well. Recent news coverage on a group called “Anonymous” has brought heightened attention concerning juveniles’ capabilities of hacking. The group consists of teens that hacked private customer information from Sony PlayStation's network and compromised 37,000 possible identities. The group continued their hacking capabilities by attacking Federal agencies and local law enforcement agencies.  The “Anonymous” attack resulted in federal documents being exposed on the Internet, along with offender crime records. The results were detrimental raising concern for better Internet infrastructure security. As a result of the successful hacking attempt committed by, “Anonymous” other hacking groups surfaced.

One of the groups that were revealed after “Anonymous” made its debut was, LulzSec. This group consisted of both teens and adults with an estimated total of 120 members. The attacks committed by this group have victimized the CIA, United States Senate, FBI, Fox, and multiple national banks. Not clearly defined as an all-teen hacking group, five teens under the age of 18 have been linked and arrested on multiple cybercrime charges. It has been estimated that the total financial loss as a result of LulzSec exceeds $20 million worldwide (Gallagher, 2011). Although the number of teens who engage in this particular cybercrime consists of only a small portion of youths, attention should be given due to the possible amount of financial loss that can result from so few teens.  The capabilities of youth involvement in cybercrimes tend to be overlooked, but with recent heightened attention more resources have been given to the topic of controlling cybercrime by developing specific legislation.

Lack of Legislation

There is no question that cybercrime has detrimental effects on individuals, but rather, an even larger problem lies in the prosecution of these crimes. The limitation on current laws raises concern. These laws are geared towards producers and distributors of child pornography, however they are being misused on juvenile offenders (Lenhart, 2009).  Many of these crimes are difficult to prosecute because of the lack of clear legislation. In past years teens have continually been mis-tried, serving as an injustice to them, as well as making a mockery of our legal system. These teens have been tried on counts ranging from disorderly conduct to the illegal use of a minor in pornographic material. Some have been tried on counts of sexual abuse of children, criminal use of communication facility, and open lewdness. It is unfair to try some teens for misdemeanors when others are being tried for felonies as a result of the lack of clear legislation. For example, at the age of eighteen, Phillip Alpert, shared nude photos of his girlfriend with friends and family members after a fight the couple had. As a result he had to register as a sex offender for the next 25 years of his life (Lenhart, 2009). This example reinforces the idea that legislatures have work to do surrounding laws regarding cybercrimes and the involvement of juveniles.

Some states have no specific cybercrime laws, which separate juveniles from adults. States such as Vermont and Utah made an attempt to define the blurred lines between adult and juvenile cybercrime. In 2009, state legislatures reduced the penalties for minors as well as first time perpetrators found guilty of partaking in sexting (Lenhart, 2009). Ohio has pending legislation attempting to have milder consequences for minors who take part in sexting with other minors. Needless to say, there is a lack of concise cybercrime jurisdiction unless Congress has determined that a particular federal interest is at stake (Demarco, 2001).  The lack of clearly defined laws separating juveniles from adults could lead to more certifications to adult court. Researchers have defined this crime as white collar. However, this definition is not applicable when applied to juveniles. Tremendous amount of change in legislation is needed to address the uniqueness of cybercrime.


Juveniles can also be victims of cybercrime. While on the Internet juveniles have the same capabilities as adults to engage in online chatting and search sexually explicit sites. Most sexually explicit sites have been linked to different types of viruses. Since juveniles are more likely to spend time on the Internet than adults, they have a higher chance of becoming a victim of identity fraud.  According to Lenhart (2009) juveniles who engage in adult activities online have a significantly higher chance to be a victim of cybercrime. With the continual rise in the popularity of social networks such as Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter, the opportunity for victimization of juveniles increases. One major concern is that children portray and misrepresent their age on the internet, putting them at greater risk to fall victim to cybercrime. By misrepresenting their age, juveniles are able to access auction websites, as well as chat rooms. In the physical world separate and apart from cyber world, these juveniles would be denied access to such venues. As a result of the opportunity to misrepresent their identity juveniles are able to access additional channels of criminality that they would otherwise be restricted (Lenhart, 2009; Demarco 2009).

Parents are put in a tough predicament. They are limited on the level of restriction they can enforce surrounding computer use. Many legitimate school assignments require access to a computer as well as the Internet, making it impossible to deny full access to the computer or Internet. With the introduction of computers to juveniles, at younger ages, as well as the accessibility of computers, the risk of victimization significantly increases (Demarco, 2009).

Concluding Thoughts

The purpose of this paper is to explore the extent of increasing juvenile involvement in cybercrimes by the use of the Internet. This paper has explored the affects since the introduction of the Internet into homes. Concerns regarding easy accessibility, limited supervision, and affordability of computers as well as other technologies have continued to increase. As a result cybercrimes have received heightened attention. Sexting is a new form of cybercrimes being committed by both juveniles and adults. The reason stems from integrated Internet cell phones, as well as the ability to easily access social networks regardless of location or time. With the ability for juveniles to mask their true identity, they are putting themselves and others at greater risk of falling victim to cybercrimes. The media plays a role in affecting the prevalence of cybercrimes.  This can be seen when looking at the hacking groups such as “Anonymous” and LulzSec. Without dedicated law enforcement agencies and personnel to investigate these rapidly emerging cybercrimes, it is unrealistic to expect Internet infrastructure security to keep these cybercrimes from being committed. Although these types of cybercrimes are different compared to conventional crimes, the potential financial loss from cybercrimes far exceeds that of conventional crimes committed by juveniles. A larger concern is how to properly categorize cybercrimes. Legislation regarding cybercrimes is not clearly defined, and the gray area of legislation results in unfair punishment. The consequences should be relative to the crime being committed; cybercrimes are no different. Juveniles are not always the offenders they are victims of cybercrime too. With no real way to validate the age of someone over the Internet, juveniles will continue to be at risk of victimization. Legislatures over varying jurisdictions need to continue to investigate the seriousness of cybercrimes being committed by juveniles as well as adults. Clearly defined legislation is necessary in order to begin to minimize the rise of cybercrime offenders and victims.


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[*] The author is a second year graduate student in the Department of Criminal Justice at UNLV.  This is a revised version of a paper for a graduate seminar on juvenile justice.