Teens and young adults have always been masters at finding new ways to get into trouble.
Last year, a comprehensive national study showed that splashy news stories were actually indicative of some fairly common practices: Teens have been using emerging technology like cell phones and social networking sites to harass and bully each other, and to release sexually explicit imagery into the ether, where it generally stays forever.
A group of Allegheny County attorneys who themselves aren't too far removed from their teen years are trying to do something about it.
"We've seen an increasing problem of young adults getting into 'e-trouble,'" says Marla Presley, a 31-year-old attorney and member of the Allegheny County Bar Association's Young Lawyers Division. "E-trouble" means any kind of bad behavior that uses technology -- from bullying someone through MySpace to sending or receiving explicit materials. "The laws are harsh -- if you receive naked pictures of your underage girlfriend, you can be charged with pornography."
The Young Lawyers Division has been going into schools countywide for years to present their Stepping Out program. Volunteer attorneys go into schools and present the kids with a booklet and presentation on "considerations for youths as they turn 18 and their responsibility changes," explains Jill Albrecht, a 27-year-old attorney and coordinator of the Stepping Out program.
The program's focus had been on things like obtaining a lease, staying out of credit-card debt and navigating the adult world. While those things are still covered, there are two new components this year: e-trouble and domestic violence.
A study undertaken last year by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and Cosmogirl.com found that 39 percent of all teens are sending or posting sexually suggestive messages through texting, instant messaging or e-mail.
"We developed this curriculum to explain to teen-agers the law and real life -- things on the internet are there forever," says Presley. Both Presley and Albrecht cite the work of Judge Joan Orie Melvin in developing a curriculum that addresses e-trouble, which they've modified to suit the Stepping Out model.
"It was something that last year's teachers had lots of questions about," says Albrecht. In "every school, the teachers expressed a need for us to touch on domestic violence. It was not demographic-specific, it was every last school we went to."
"If your boyfriend is constantly looking at your cell phone, not letting you have other friends, it's violence and it doesn't have to be tolerated," says Presley. "There's an entire section of this booklet on resources. It's broad enough that if you're a teen-ager and you have some sort of issue, somewhere in there there's a number or a person or a resource that can help."
Early each school year, the Young Lawyers Division contacts every school in Allegheny County with a questionnaire to gauge their interest in having the attorneys address classes. In the first week of September, says Albrecht, they contacted 78 schools. So far, 12 have invited the group. Last year, Albrecht says, they did more than 60 presentations at 17 schools. Any principal interested in having the presentation at their school can contact Albrecht at email@example.com.