This paper examines how teenagers construct notions of risk and responsibility in relation to both ‘offending’ and ‘offensive’ behaviour on social media – concepts that are easily conflated among discussions of how to best address online harms (e.g., via legislation, regulation, education, etc.)
Findings are based upon interactive focus-group workshops with 189 pupils aged 11- 18 years old. Pupils articulated how ‘risky’ they thought certain content or conduct was in response to 12 stimuli example posts (ranging from the mildly inappropriate to serious criminal issues).
Using a framework of labelling theory of deviance, analysis shows how understandings of digital risk are underpinned by a multitude of pre-existing social, cultural, legal, political, and moral subjectivities. This creates complexity, confusion and contradiction – even among small homogenous groups – when it comes to ideas about criminality and culpability online.
For example, sharing an indecent video of a girl elicited the most disagreement and debate, despite numerous education initiatives re: image-sharing among under 18s. Meanwhile, a joke about blowing up an airport had a high consensus as the riskiest example (despite Paul Chambers famously having his conviction quashed in 2012).
The intended impact of this research is to raise awareness of the active role children play in upholding (or challenging) rapidly diverging social norms and boundaries online. As they represent both prolific consumers and producers of digital content, an understanding of young people’s perspectives is essential for policy makers working across the fields of law, criminal justice, education, and new media and technology.