Parents Held Liable for Kid's Cyberbullying

What can adults do about cyberbullying in a changing legal landscape?

Posted Oct 21, 2014

The Georgia Court of Appeals just put parents on the hook for their children’s online activity. In a decision handed down on October 15, 2014, the judges stated that the parents were negligent in allowing a fake Facebook account created by their 13-year-old son to stay up for almost a year. Since they knew about it, were in control of the child’s computer and Internet access and did not ensure the site was taken down, they share responsibility for the harms caused to the targeted teen. This is a landmark case as it is the first time that parents are being held responsible for inadequately monitoring the activities that take place on their home computers and network.

US Map - cyberbullying laws
According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, as of September 2014, only 20 states currently have specific cyberbullying legislation. Which means over half of our country still doesn’t have clear legislation preventing cyberbullying and explicitly protecting youth from being targeted online. This is a major concern since legal decisions about cyberbullying have varied significantly depending on the courts hearing the arguments and the facts of the cases. Without clear guidance, parents, schools, and youth are left to navigate the “wild west” of the Internet with limited safety and protections. Some of the cyberbullying laws are minimal and merely extend vague state anti-bullying statutes to include electronic forms such as Indiana’s (HB1423, 2013). Other laws are more comprehensive and explicitly name the role of schools in intervening and requiring education and intervention as part of the law. California’s AB 746 (2011) and AB 256 (2013) and Florida’s HB 609 (2013) are examples of a more comprehensive and proactive approaches. Hawaii’s SB2094 actually requires fining parents and guardians $100 for each separate cyberbullying offense – there are many who question the effectiveness of such a law.

Even though we do have clearer language and protections in some states, are these laws having an impact on students’ behaviors? It is hard to say. Attention to the issue of cyberbullying has been increasing over time, and this is most likely due to the increased availability of Internet access and youth spending more time online. Even though media reports make it sound like an epidemic, leading cyberbullying researcher, Justin Patchin estimates that approximately 20-25% of youth have experienced some form of cyberbullying. So are laws going to make a difference? As a former teacher and now a bullying and social media expert, I can say that legislation will have very little impact on the behavior of youth unless the adults in their world make an intentional effort to teach them about these laws, digital citizenship, and monitor their behaviors online.

Schools that have comprehensive digital citizenship programs and proactive anti-bullying programs are less likely to have issues with cyberbullying than those who don’t explicitly address these issues. In these cases, it is less important what the law says than what the adults in each community are doing to set the tone and keep students safe on and off-line. In the case of Megan Meier, one of the earliest national stories about cyberbullying, she committed suicide in 2006 after being cyberbullied by the parent of one of her peers. It is clear that the adults in her community failed her – laws or no laws.

Where cyberbullying laws get tricky is when we start looking at First Amendment issues. Some cases have been dismissed when defendant’s argued that the school’s intervention limited the perpetrator’s freedom of expression to post their views online. In general, if schools can demonstrate that there is a “substantial disruption” to the operation of the school, they can intervene. However, if this is not clearly documented, savvy lawyers can turn the tables on schools and punish them for acting too quickly to protect their students. Two cases have proven that schools have legally defensible positions when they respond to “true threats” or acts that may “substantially disrupt” the school environment.

The laws and legal decisions will continue to evolve around this issue so it is difficult for parents and educators to keep up. The simple advice is to teach respectful and appropriate behavior, promote digital citizenship, and act quickly and in the best interests of all children involved when reports of bullying or cyberbullying are made. In the Georgia case, the school notified the parents about the fake Facebook site in question yet it remained up for 11 months until the targeted students’ family was able to petition Facebook to take it down. As a parent, I find it disturbing that another child’s family would allow such painful and harmful information to remain up in cyberspace when they have the power to stop the damage it is causing.

I always tell my students that laws mark the lowest common denominator of acceptable behaviors in a society. As educators and parents, we should be striving for a much higher standard; we shouldn’t be working to avoid criminality, rather promoting healthy citizenship and respectful community standards. Regardless of the laws in your jurisdiction, as long as you are acting reasonably to protect the safety of young people, then what the laws say about specific punishments and responses to cyberbullying shouldn’t really matter. That’s not to say that we don’t need clear and defensible legal frameworks to address online harassment when it occurs, but for the layperson, the best operating frameworks include promoting: health and safety, responsibility, and respect.