Dangers of the Digital Age
It is with great appreciation that I step into the role of providing a law related article for The Dock Line Magazine, a publication I have enjoyed since I opened my practice in Montgomery County in 2004 after working for a Houston based civil law firm that primarily defended insured entities in civil lawsuits, and a Woodlands based firm that similarly provided defense to civil lawsuits. My practice today has grown immensely over the past (nearly) two decades, primarily focusing on helping those that have suffered injuries due to the fault of another (such as car accidents, boating incidents, medical malpractice, animal attacks, falls, and more). I also assist individuals and businesses with civil lawsuits, both as a Plaintiff and/or Defendant, ranging from breaches of contract, debt and collections, and employment related matters. I also address basic estate planning and probate needs for individuals and families, including probating wills, and drafting wills, powers of attorney and other related legal documents.
As time passes with any generation, various things come into play that greatly affect the landscape of our lives, and the legal world around us. In the past 20 years, nothing comes to mind with more resounding emphasis than the growth of the so-called “digital age”. As a parent of four, and a grandparent of one, myself and my wife (like so many parents) have developed great concerns over the manner in which this digital age has opened up our younger generations to more and more dangers. That being said, the digital age is not likely to go away anytime soon, so being knowledgeable of some of the dangers of this age is important, whether in the legal world or elsewhere.
The digital age can be defined a number of ways, but generally speaking, involves the exchange of great amounts of information through the use of computer-based systems, whether a desktop computer, your phone, or any other medium that transmits data (information) from one place to another. In some ways, this digital age is not so different from what generations did prior to computers. Online shopping used to be called the Sears catalog, for example. Instead of pen and paper, we now use a computer, a screen and a keyboard. What is different is what happens to the information after you input it and how it can affect you once it becomes public (meaning it leaves your device). In regards to video and audio recordings, it is a safe practice to always assume that everything that you say and do may be recorded in some form or fashion.
Once Shared, It Lives Forever
In relation to the legal profession, one of the lessons that everyone, from children to adults, need to understand is that once you input information into your device, if it’s connected to any external sharing source (a server, a phone service, or the Internet, for example), the information has become forever available to anyone willing to look for it. Just think of that funny video you saw where someone hurt themselves in an embarrassing fashion. Do you think that person that was injured desired that video to become viral, and a permanent fixture on the Internet for their children, great grandchildren and so on to view one day? However, because the information (a video in this example) was made on a device and shared, it is now forever a diary of that person’s embarrassing moment in time.
Additionally, when you say or write something controversial, it will become a permanent part of the digital realm, and always be out there to come back and possibly haunt you in the future. That statement you made in an email when you were 17 years old to sound cool in the moment may resurface when you are running for public office 40 years later. Likewise, in many lawsuits involving businesses, there are often hundreds, if not thousands of emails to examine that may have relevance to the case. From a Plaintiff’s perspective, it may only take one or two emails that contain statements that make the Defendant look bad that make the case. Those emails, often sent in moments of anger or just not thinking about the future, become permanent records of the business available for some lawyer (or supervisor or manager) to read in the future.
The lesson is simple – the only statements and beliefs you can be sure never become a permanent fixture in this digital world is what you do not say and/or do not type and share. If you presume that every word you write down and every word you say aloud (thanks to the ever-increasing permeation of video and audio recording devices) becomes a permanent remark attributable to you, then you will likely exercise more caution.
Pictures Are Hard to Overcome
Practicing personal injury, one of the concerns I have in regards to the digital age is when a client posts photos to any type of social media. If you are injured, you can rest assured that an insurance adjuster, investigator, or attorney is going to try to tap into your social media presence to find incriminating evidence. That picture of you playing with your grandchild just a few days after being in a car accident may be completely innocent and not show the pain you felt as the picture was taken, but that will be a hard picture to defend before a jury of your peers who will just see you smiling and playing as if you were uninjured.
I, and many attorneys, spend a great deal of time warning new clients of these dangers and hoping they do not have the moment of weakness because they wish to share an exciting or happy event in their lives. Even if your social media accounts are private, those you share (or in some instances “friend”) may not have the same level of privacy thus exposing your information.
Again, the lesson is simple – think very carefully before you share anything publicly or privately in the digital world. Once shared, you lose control over how that photo, video or image is shared and or used forever in the future.
It Is Not Just Teenagers – Cyberbullying
Cyberbullying, the use of digital media to ostracize, embarrass, threaten and just be outright mean to others is a very real problem. Suicide rates among teens have shown steady increases over the years that many argue coincide with the rise of the digital age. Any parent of a teenager likely realizes that their child is never far from their phone, which is really not so much a phone but a never-ending chat room between your child and any number of other people you do not know. Being a teen is hard enough, let alone when one or more persons decide to make that teen the target of bullying that tends to become a tidal wave of negative comments and torment as the days pass.
However, teens are not the only victims of cyberbullying. Unfortunately, and often with more vigor and hatred, adults target other adults using the same types of tactics of using threats, false claims, and verbal assaults. These types of digital tirades often begin over something mundane, such as a neighbor dispute over trash cans or the location of that new fence, but soon develop into this online swearing match or all out bullying by one person against other.
There are legal consequences, above and beyond the moral or ethical consequences, to cyberbullying. In the near future I hope to address an entirely new law (and legal remedy) available to those who feel they are being cyberbullied. Beyond that, teenagers in many jurisdictions have been prosecuted when their cyberbullying has led to or contributed to another teen taking their life. False claims made in fits of anger can become the basis for expensive lawsuits over slander (verbal statements) and libel (written statements).
Proceed With Caution
I do not write this article with the intent to say the digital age is altogether dangerous or a “bad” thing. Quite to the contrary, just like any age in our history, there are pluses and minuses. In my profession, however, we are forced to deal with the minuses, and the digital age has many. The few I have discussed just touch the surface of the trouble one can cause, or the trouble one can suffer.
However, knowing the danger exists and exercising caution about it are two separate things. It’s one thing to know cyberbullying is a problem but altogether another to stop ourselves from participating in it and protecting those we love from its harmful effects.
If we think about the consequences of what we post or share, in terms of immediate and far-reaching consequences, the digital age would certainly take a large step towards being a safer destination.