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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Parents should not be held liable for cyberbullying

    Following the suicide of a 12-year-old in Florida last month, Mark O’Mara, a criminal defense lawyer, drafted a bill that would hold parents accountable for how their children bully others on the internet. This legislation “places legal responsibility on parents, making them liable for what the children do with the online access parents provide,” O’Mara said in an Op-Ed for CNN.

    Although more does need to be done to minimize cyberbullying, holding parents criminally liable is not the solution to this complex problem.

    Currently, parents can be held responsible in some cases for negligence that results in their child causing harm. For example, the parents are criminally responsible if a child gets their hands on an improperly stored firearm and shoots someone.

    But that logic shouldn’t extend to the internet.

    Paul D. Bennett, Clinical Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Child and Family Law Clinic at the UA, said not all household items should be considered dangerous even if they’re used in a harmful manner. “If there’s a baseball bat at home, and a child uses a baseball bat to harm somebody else, are the parents responsible for that?” he said.

    When do we start naming household items — like a baseball bat or a computer — a threat that makes parents criminally liable for them? It’s just not realistic to make the distinction between what is and isn’t inherently dangerous. That would border on sending someone to jail simply for bad parenting, and parenting isn’t the government’s job to regulate.

    There would simply be too much gray area with this kind of law, and that’s not how the American justice system is supposed to work.

    “One of the principles of criminal law is that people can predict their behavior based on the laws that exist, and everybody knows what’s criminal and they know what’s not,” Bennett said. “If you’re going to regulate behavior, criminally, we need to be explicit.”

    And, although parents probably are, for the most part, grossly unaware of their children’s online activities, it shouldn’t be an ignorance with criminal ramifications.

    Bennett proposed a hypothetical scenario where a mom and dad are asleep in bed while their child bullied someone over the internet using the home computer. “Are those the people we want to put on trial? Are those people we want to put handcuffs on?” Bennett said.

    This type of legislation wouldn’t have the desired effect on cyber bullying. Will the threat of jail time looming over a parent’s head really cause them to more diligently monitor their child’s internet usage? And will that, in the end, reduce the amount of cyberbullying?

    Locking up ignorant adults isn’t a cure for the problem, and could even aggravate it if the child bullier is separated from their parents and is thrown into an unfamiliar situation.

    “I’m not sure if taking that extra step and saying it’s going to be criminal or not on a real day-to-day basis is going to make a difference…or accomplish much,” Bennett said.

    O’Mara is correct in that “parents need to understand that the technology they give to their children can be used to break the law and inflict harm,” but this type of law isn’t the way to go about enforcing this understanding.

    Legislators should focus first on informing parents before they start to point fingers.

    A study put together by UA Professors Daniel Erickson, Noel Card and Sheri Bauman for the McClelland Institute suggests that, “A more excellent way of parenting in the cyber-age includes open communication about online behaviors and more comprehensive monitoring of when and how children are using technology. In addition, taking responsibility to not only install filters or blocks on the Internet, but also taking the time to model and teach good citizenry and appropriate online behavior to the rising generation of cyber-citizens.”

    Cyberbullying is a new problem — one that most parents hadn’t even considered when they were children — and instead of jumping the gun and immediately place the blame on parents, we should first give them an opportunity to become more knowledgeable about a complex situation.

    Elizabeth Eaton is a pre-journalism freshman. Follow her @liz_eaton95.

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