Jonathan Cristall talks about ‘What They Don’t Teach Teens’ book 

He spent his teen years taking unnecessary risks and getting into avoidable trouble. Now, a veteran prosecutor for the City of Los Angeles, he went from disregarding laws to enforcing them. Cristall is a certified sexual violence prevention instructor.

Cristall frequently speaks to young people and their families about the topics in his book, What They Don’t Teach Teens. His work with teens has appeared in Huffington Post, Beverly Hills Courier, Beyond the Brochure, Kids Safety Network, and the Good Men Project, among others

Your book reads like a great cautionary guide for teens, but we suspect that parents will read it to discuss with their kids. Can you tell us what your book is about and why you wrote it?

As a father to three sons, all in adolescence, I realized some time ago that there are so many life skills that they and all other young people need to be educated about, but schools very rarely teach. I looked for a resource that would provide my sons with guidance on issues involving sexual violence and misconduct, digital safety, police interactions, street safety, and more, but found nothing. As a veteran prosecutor, father, formerly troubled teen, and a certified sexual violence prevention instructor, I decided to write the book that I was longing for.

What are three pieces of advice that you would give to parents of color for when their teens must interact with police? Is it ever too early to have “the talk” about the police?

Let me start by saying that my advice about police interactions is for people of all colors and backgrounds. I’m certainly not saying that there isn’t racial injustice in policing and the criminal justice system as a whole, there is, my advice is simply for all young people who have a police interaction.

It’s important for young people to know their rights under the 4th and 5th Amendments. This involves when police are allowed to search you or your stuff and responding (or not) to police questions. As I describe in the book, there are better ways to verbally assert your rights than others.

Let me be clear: knowing your rights doesn’t mean that a police interaction will always go the way it should and it can be hard to assert your rights in the face of an intimidating police officer, particularly as a young person, a person of color, being disabled, LGBTQ, and certainly others–for some these distinctions overlap. Yet, exercising your rights can be done successfully and help us avoid doing or saying something that we later regret. When you know your rights and they aren’t respected, you’ll be better able to make a complaint later on and to help your lawyer fight criminal charges that have been improperly brought against you.

New drivers should also understand what to do and not to do when stopped by the police. Since pulling people over is one of the most dangerous things police officers do, officers can be on edge. As a result, things can escalate quickly if the officer believes the person is a threat, is questioning their authority, and as we have all seen repeatedly on the news, sometimes for no reason at all. What I’ve told my sons is that the police have never lost an argument on the street—arguments are for courtrooms–and doing so can be downright dangerous. Don’t exacerbate an already volatile situation by their own actions. No matter how angry they are at the police, bite your lip, be polite, and make it home safely.

With children and teens online more than ever, what aspects of online behaviors do you stress in your book and workshops? What is a common problem for young people that their parents may not have experience dealing with personally?

Four of the 11 chapters in my book focus entirely on digital safety, including unlawful sexting and one’s digital footprint. However, the digital world is a theme that comes up in every other chapter too, including things like digital dating abuse or acts amounting to sexual harassment done from a handheld device.

One of the most important things I cover in various ways in the book is to remain mindful before hitting send. Would it be a bad look if it got out to unintended recipients? I hear and read about way too many instances of young people being devastated because something they shared privately was seen by unintended recipients. Someone they thought was a friend, was actually a frenemy. A bad breakup happens and a former partner shares intimate photos that were intended to be for their eyes only. Sometimes these things can even be shared accidentally. The bottom line is that we all need to stay vigilant, particularly young people who can act more impulsively, about what we say and do online. And, of course, there’s also the colleges and employers who are checking out a candidates digital footprint that we cover in depth.

Regarding your second question, I’d say that it’s cyberbullying. We cover that topic over the course of an entire chapter. For our purposes here though, it’s worth noting that since most of our kids won’t cyberbully someone, it’s important for them to understand that a cyberbully has no power without followers and inactive bystanders. Their mere digital presence within the bullying dynamic can make the target feel like everyone has turned against them. And, from the bully’s perspective, it will be thought of as support for the abuse. So, at a minimum, our kids should not participate even passively in a cyberbullying situation and, if it’s safe to do so, try to meaningfully intervene. That chapter and others discuss the importance of bystander intervention and give many examples about how to intervene, to one extent or an other, in a way that’s safe for the targets and the person intervening.

Let’s talk about creating a digital footprint. What are some of the most important things for young people and their parents to be concerned about most?

No one can say yet what the full cultural, personal, or legal ramifications will be of our digital footprints. As such, for both the short and long term, it’s incredibly important for young people to think about the permanence of their digital footprints. Which, by the way, is so unfortunate because it imposes a level of accountability, forethought, and risk management that no young person should have to face.

In the chapter on digital footprints, I highly encourage young people to stay mindful of the two groups that may be making important decisions about them: college admissions officers and employers. I cover, in depth, the ways one’s digital footprint can come back to bite them with these two groups and others. But, just as important to note is that this is a wonderful opportunity to populate their digital footprints with things that they want admissions officers and prospective employers to see and know about them. For example, a recognition they might have received, volunteer work they do, passions they pursue, etc. It’s not about being phony, at all. Rather to highlight the good things you’re already doing that can be beneficial to share for your long term objectives.

We learned from your book that online blackmail is prevalent amongst teens. How do you caution parents and young people to deal with these predatory acts?

Online sexual blackmail involving threats to expose sexual images, also called sextortion, is the fastest growing crime against young people online. It’s a crime of unspeakable brutality that so few people know about. The average age of victims is 15 and sexual perpetrators often look for targets online by starting a virtual relationship, often by catfishing, and other methods. However, the early data seems to indicate that sextortion may be more frequently perpetrated by a current or former partner in an in-person relationship—who was likely once trusted by the victim and obtained nudes from them.

Once a sextortionist has intimate images of the victim, they threaten the person with widespread exposure of the image if their demands aren’t met. Those demands can include obtaining more images of the victim, in person sexual activity, money, and other things. A very common demand when the sextortion arises from an in-person relationship is for the victim to stay in or return to an intimate relationship.

While victims are never to blame for the predatory acts of another, the books covers the many different ways we can better protect ourselves from sextortion. If I had to choose only one to share here, it’d be to never take or share nudes. And, if you do, never show your face or anything else that might identify you.

What are the main points you want parents and teens to take away from your book or workshops?

That young people today face new risks, expectations, and laws that simply didn’t exist when all of us as parents were young. To grow up without a full grasp on the importance of your digital footprint, sexual consent, your rights with the police, and the other topics in my book is no longer an option.

While these and other book topics can sometimes be unsettling to think about, our children should be educated about things beyond the subjects that are traditionally taught in school. In fact, readers have repeatedly told me that learning the information in the book has brought them peace of mind knowing that their children will be better able to handle themselves if one of these unexpected situations arises—both for themselves or for a loved one.

His book, What They Don’t Teach Teens: Life Safety Skills for Teens and the Adults Who Care for Them, is available on Amazon.

To learn more about this compelling book, check out its official website.


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