Should Parents Be Arrested For Actions of Their Cyberbullying Kids?

Ah, the “good ol’ days,” when bully’s used to torture and torment solely on street corners and in schoolyards. Bob Dylan was right, “Oh the times they are a changin’.” With the development of technology and increased use of social media, bullys can now do their dirty work anywhere and at any time. They can harass via emails, texts, Tweets, Facebook messages, etc. They can even do it anonymously. These “cyberbullys” leave their victims feeling hurt, angry, depressed, devastated, and even suicidal. They have become so effective at it that now, tragically, kids are dying as a result. Fortunately, law enforcement agencies around the U.S. are beginning to react to public outrage against cyberbullying. Kids are being held accountable for their conduct, even being arrested in certain instances.

The most recent high profile arrest of two Florida teens whose cyber bullying allegedly led to a 12 year old teen’s tragic suicide was met with little criticism. Public support for the teen’s arrest was fueled primarily by the release of just some of the hundreds of horrible messages sent by the teens over an eleven month period of alleged harassment. “Why don’t you go and kill yourself?’ and “You should die,” were just two of the messages that were sent to the deceased teen.

Prosecuting the teens for their behavior is one thing. Prosecuting their parents for their alleged criminal conduct is another. One of the hottest issues right now is whether parents should be stripped of their liberty and forced to face criminal charges for their children’s bullying. The answer is not so easy.

George Zimmerman’s attorney and CNN legal analyst Mark O’Mara (who I admire greatly and consider a friend) makes the argument that they should be. He argues that if a child commits a crime by using the parent’s car or gun, the parents could be held criminally responsible. He maintains that if a child breaks the law by using a cell phone or a computer provided by the parent, there is no difference.

I am inclined to support legislation that would hold parents criminally responsible for their children’s abhorrent behavior, under very narrow circumstances. First, the conduct and speech of the child must not be constitutionally protected. Rude, nasty, offensive and even outrageous conduct has all been found to be protected by the First Amendment. However, if the child’s actions constitutes a clear violation of the criminal stalking laws, with sufficient evidence that the child engaged in malicious, repeated, willful following, cyberstalking and/or harassing, then we are getting warmer. For me, the harassment must clearly evidence the child’s desire to inflict substantial emotional distress on the victim with no legitimate purpose.

The next question I have is, “What did the parents know?” An easy scenario to justify holding parents criminally responsible would be if they knew what their kids were doing and did nothing to stop it. More challenging is if they didn’t know. If they didn’t, I would still consider holding parents responsible depending on the circumstances. Did their kid send out one nasty text? Or, rather, did their child, as is alleged in the most recent case here in Florida, allegedly engage in a campaign of harassment for close to an entire year.

Because kids are literally dying, things must change. It’s reasonably foreseeable to assume that things are only going to get worse unless something changes. As a result, I am all in favor of changes now.

While not inherently dangerous like a gun or car, a computer and/or cell phone can be just as lethal if misused. Parents can no longer stick their heads in the sand and claim they didn’t know what their kids were up to. With some tougher criminal laws, narrowly and specifically written, holding parents accountable along with their children, we may hopefully see some improvements to this dilemma soon.