Skip to main content

Should parents be criminally liable for kids' cyberbullying?

By Mark O'Mara, CNN Legal Analyst
updated 10:49 AM EDT, Sun October 20, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mark O'Mara: Two Florida girls charged with cyberbullying of 12-year-old who committed suicide
  • Parents of one girl say she has an alibi and that they monitored her Facebook account
  • O'Mara: If parents are ignorant or apathetic, should they be held responsible for bullying?
  • He says law should impose criminal liability under certain circumstances

(CNN) -- Two girls in Florida, 14 and 12, have been arrested and charged with aggravated stalking -- cyberbullying.

They allegedly tormented a 12-year-old girl named Rebecca so relentlessly that last month, Rebecca leapt to her death from a tower in an abandoned concrete plant.

The arrest came after the following post was made on the 14-year-old's Facebook account: "Yes IK I bullied REBECCA nd she killed herself but IDGAF." Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said he would charge the parents if he could, but there were no "obvious charges" against them.

Mark O\'Mara
Mark O'Mara

Before filing charges against the girls, Judd asked the parents to bring the girls in for questioning. They refused.

If a teenager makes Facebook posts about the suicide of the girl she allegedly bullied, the parents might argue that they have no effective way to monitor or curtail her online behavior. They could say they don't know what she's doing, and they don't care.

Mother of girl accused of bullying Florida teen arrested on unrelated charges

The question is this: Is ignorance and apathy about a child's cyberbullying criminal? Under our current laws, it looks like the answer is no.

But in a case such as this, should willful blindness or gross negligence be criminal? I think they should, and here's why: If a child kills someone while operating a parent's car, the parents can be held responsible.

If a child kills someone while using a parent's gun, the parent can be held responsible. If a child breaks the law using a computer or cell phone provided by the parent, how is that different?

Parents need to understand that the technology they give to their children can be used to break the law and inflict harm. Parents need to understand that allowing their children the privilege of going online comes with responsibility and liability.

Sheriff: Parents are in denial
D.A. warns parents about Ask.fm
Two girls arrested in teen's suicide

The father of the 14-year-old girl in this case spoke to CNN's Chris Cuomo and said he regularly checks his daughter's Facebook account. He said his daughter was asleep when the Facebook post was made, and he suspects the account was hacked. When asked about other online services used by the daughter, Kik and Ask.fm, the parents indicated they had not heard of them.

Most of today's parents would be astonished by their children's online behavior. But they shouldn't be. Just because today's parents didn't grow up with social media doesn't mean they can be forgiven for not knowing about it.

The Internet is a portal to a boundless virtual world. It offers enormous opportunities for social interaction, and I'd suspect most tweens and teenagers would argue it is crucial to their socialization experience. If they're not online, they're missing out.

Parents, beware of bullying on sites you've never seen

That means it is fertile grounds for those who wish to harass, antagonize or bully. And it's a place where they can inflict emotional injury in a detached, almost anonymous way -- a coward's way.

If parents are not going to assume responsibility for their children's online access on their own -- and it seems like the parents in this case are not -- then I would support legislation that places legal responsibility on parents, making them liable for what the children do with the online access parents provide.

I am drafting a bill that would give Judd and other sheriffs the "obvious charges" needed to hold parents accountable. I do not think we should enact knee-jerk legislation because of a singular event, but this is not a singular event.

I'm thinking about the Steubenville rape case, where teenage boys felt it was OK to post photos showing abuse of a teenage girl online.

I'm thinking about the case of a former NFL player who discovered 300 teens were vandalizing his home because they were posting on social media while they did it. Where are the parents?

I understand there are substantial obstacles in the way of passing such legislation. Once upon a time, I worked for the Florida House Governmental Operations Committee, and I learned how to draft a bill that can pass constitutional muster and which addresses urgent matters in a balanced way.

While it is a straightforward process to hold a parent responsible when a child uses a dangerous object such as a gun, it's more difficult in the case of a nondangerous device such as a cell phone or a computer.

Moreover, holding a parent liable requires proof that they had knowledge of the activity, or at least were grossly negligent in their parental responsibilities, and we have to recognize that teenagers can find ways to avoid detection. In this context, a parent could be grossly negligent by having absolutely no supervision of child's Internet presence (just like leaving a kid in a hot car, or playing on a busy street), or if a parent was notified of potential problems with Internet presence by a complaining parent or a school official or cop, and then failed to do anything to address it..

Finally, there are constitutional due-process concerns with holding a third party liable for criminal acts, especially when a statute already exists to hold the child criminally liable.

In the wake of this suicide, Judd has implored parents to take more responsibility for their children's online behavior. If parents won't adopt that responsibility, we need to hold their feet to the fire and insist they share liability, especially when their children's actions have life or death consequences.

Social media has entered the "Wild West" phase. It's been unregulated so far because it's fallen outside the view of our lawmakers. Nonetheless, we are seeing example after example of people using social media for nefarious purposes.

Cyberbullying is an undeniable problem, and we should not be satisfied with just asking kids to "toughen up and take it."

I believe that kids have a right to some sense of safety and security, and that is threatened by cyberbullying. It's up to parents to protect their kids, and if they don't know how to, maybe some legislation holding them liable if they don't will provide the needed motivation for them to get involved in their kids' online lives.

This issue is urgent and critical, and we need to act before we lose another child.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mark O'Mara.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 4:48 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 5:15 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 5:53 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 7:05 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT