Bullying seems to have become much more prevalent in recent years, particularly "cyberbullying," which takes place online, typically via social networks like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. When teenagers (specifically, minors under the age of 18) engage in cyberbullying, it could be the parents who find themselves on the legal hook.
The Basics of Bullying
The effects of bullying on a child can be severe, and at times tragic, as bullied children often experience psychological and emotional problems, and sometimes even end up committing suicide.
While schools have taken a lead role in the prevention of bullying and harassment, these issues continue to be a problem of significant concern in our society. Parents often play a big part in prevention efforts, by educating their children about the perils of bullying, and by taking reasonable steps to monitor their children's online behavior to ensure that there is no bullying or harassing behavior going on (whether their child is the aggressor or the victim).
Parental Liability for Cyberbullying
When your child does engage in online bullying, and another child is negatively impacted by that behavior, questions arise concerning your parental liability for your child's conduct.
There are essentially two types of liability you may face in this situation: civil liability and criminal liability. Depending on where you live, your liability may either be relatively remote or quite significant, and may involve an award of money damages, imposition of criminal fines, incarceration or a combination of more than one of these. It's also important to note that civil and criminal liability are not mutually exclusive, meaning you could face both a civil lawsuit for monetary damages and a criminal proceeding that could result in fines and other sanctions.
Most states have some form of a "parental liability law," which makes parents legally liable for damages caused by their minor children. Some of these state laws require proof of negligent supervision, while others impose what is known as "strict liability", which means that the parents can be held liable without regard to their own fault based solely on their parental status (whether or not the parents' action or inaction amounted to negligence, in other words).
In addition, some states place caps on the amount of damages that can be recovered from the parents of a child who injures another, while other jurisdictions hold parents liable for the full amount of the harm caused by their minor child's conduct.
If you live in a state with a parental liability law and your child engages in bullying that harms another child, you as the parent can be held civilly liable for some or all of the injured child's damages. These damages generally consist of mental anguish, pain and suffering, and emotional trauma, and can be quite extensive when they cause significant psychological/emotional issues that necessitate professional intervention, such as counseling and therapy.
If you are sued civilly for damages caused by your child's bullying of another child, you should present the suit papers to your homeowner's insurer, as your homeowner's insurance policy may provide coverage for this type of claim.
In recent years, more and more states and local municipalities have enacted statutes and ordinances that impose criminal liability on parents for the bullying behavior of their children.
In California, for example, parents may be held criminally liable for failing to exercise reasonable care, supervision, protection, and control over their children, and they can be incarcerated for breaking this law.
What this means in practical terms is that parents have an affirmative duty to monitor their children's online activity to make sure that bullying behavior is not occurring, and to take steps to stop it when it is discovered. In addition to incarceration, many of these statutes and ordinances provide for the imposition of criminal fines and the performance of community service.