Helicopter Parents And Social Media

I was a guest on the Scott Sloan show on WLW 700 yesterday. We talked about a recent case in Georgia involving a 13 year old cyber bully named Dustin. This kid decided it would be fun to create a false Facebook profile of a fellow seventh grade girl. Dustin knew what he was doing. He posed as the classmate to create a new Facebook account, using a Yahoo e-mail address. For the profile photo, he used a photo that he had taken of the classmate at school, after altering it with a “Fat Face” application. 

But that was just the start. Dustin added information to the unauthorized profile, which included racist viewpoints and a homosexual orientation. He also caused the phony person to issue invitations to become Facebook “Friends” to many of Alex’s classmates, teachers, and extended family members. Dustin continued to add information to the phony profile and caused the account to post status updates and comments on other users’ pages. Some of these postings were graphically sexual, racist or otherwise offensive and some falsely stated that Alex was on a medication regimen for mental health disorders and that she took illegal drugs.

School officials soon discovered that Dustin and another student were behind the scheme. He was punished at school and sort of punished at home. His parents forbade him from seeing his friends after school for one week. But that’s pretty much it. Neither Dustin nor his parents did anything to get the false Facebook information taken down for nearly 11 months. Alex’s parents eventually filed a civil lawsuit for libel and infliction of emotional distress. They named Dustin’s parents as defendants. Shortly after Alex’s parents filed the lawsuit, the Facebook page finally came down.   

Dustin’s parents filed a motion for summary judgment in the trial court and won. The court concluded the parents were not liable as a matter of law under the circumstances. But the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed that ruling. It held that once the parents were put on notice of the Facebook page, they had a duty to guard against the harm. The issue is foreseeability. If the parents could reasonably foresee that their child’s conduct might harm another person, they had a duty to prevent the harm. 

In the Georgia appellate court’s view, there were issues of fact around that issue and so it sent the case back for a jury trial. On the radio we discussed what parents are supposed to do in a wired world. The answer is, I suppose, do your best. But once you discover your kid is a cyberbully, you are well advised to clean up the mess he made.  Sooner rather than (11 months) later. And on the front end, take this advice: