Cyberbullying is a growing and serious problem facing our children. A bullied child carries daily fears and stress, and can sometimes be subjected to extreme harassment. The impacts of this harassment illustrate just how harmful cyberbullying can be: children may withdraw from their friends and family, they may become depressed and anxious, and their performance in school may falter. They may lose interest in activities and sports they used to enjoy. Some children so strongly internalize the bullying that they harm themselves, even to the point of attempting suicide.
You may worry what you can do if your child is a victim of cyberbullying. Amid multiple distressing media reports about teens and pre-teens bullying classmates through social media, you may wonder whether the law protects children subjected to such attacks.
According to the Cyberbullying Research Center (CRC), about one quarter of students in middle school and high school report that they have been cyberbullied at some point in their lifetimes. Unfortunately, about 16 percent of the kids surveyed admitted that they had cyberbullied others at some point in their lives as well.
How Cyberbullying May Be Cause to File a Lawsuit
The CRC defines cyberbullying as “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones and other electronic devices.”
Under that definition, it would appear that the victim of cyberbullying could potentially bring a legal claim against the perpetrator under personal injury law.
In general, a personal injury lawsuit must demonstrate that:
The defendant owed a duty to the plaintiff (the injured party)
The defendant breached that duty (by acting unreasonably or recklessly)
This breach proximately caused the plaintiff to suffer an injury
The plaintiff actually suffered an injury (or damages).
In our society, one person owes a general duty to others to allow them to go about their business without hindrance or harm. Cyberbullying would appear to be a breach of that duty.
If a person suffered harm as the result – perhaps established through proof of physical illness or mental counseling – then it would seem that a personal injury claim based on cyberbullying could be established. (Of course, all cases depend on their unique facts.)
Cyberbullying Is a Crime in Most States – Could It Be a Tort, Too?
If your child is a victim of cyberbullying, you may want to know all the legal options available to you to put a stop to it and how you can use the law to punish the perpetrator.
Purposefully inflicting physical or psychological harm is actually considered a crime in the majority of the country. In 49 states, laws specifically address bullying as a form of assault, and almost all of them include electronic harassment. Twenty-two states’ bullying laws include specific references to “cyberbullying.” Most state laws require school-based sanctions. Few carry criminal penalties.
Even without such laws, an argument published by the American Bar Association suggests that “the underlying acts constituting cyberbullying also may constitute a traditional common law tort regardless of whether they emanated from online communication. For example, the typical instance of cyberbullying may touch on harassment, defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.”
Can Parents Be Held Liable for a Child’s Cyberbullying?
Parents of children who engage in cyberbullying may be liable as well.
“If a child kills someone while operating a parent’s car, the parents can be held responsible,” writes CNN Legal Analyst Mark O’Meara. “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?”
Unfortunately, the harm that can be caused by cyberbullying is all too clear.
For instance, the above-cited CNN report focused on the case of a 12-year-old Florida girl who was so relentlessly tormented by two classmates via Facebook that she leapt to her death from a tower in an abandoned concrete plant. The girl’s family has since filed a cyberbullying lawsuit, a Tampa Bay news station reports.
Meanwhile, a recent ABC News report focused on a Georgia teen girl. Other teens created a phony Facebook page that allegedly defamed the girl, with posts about non-existent sexual exploits, links to racist videos on YouTube and implications of drug use.
Her family worked to get Facebook to remove the page. However, “[f]or the first several months, she kind of went into a shell,” the girl’s father said.
How Libel Charges Can Apply to Cyberbullying
The Georgia girl and her parents eventually filed a lawsuit alleging libel as well as intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Last October, the Georgia Court of Appeals ruled that the parents of the boy who allegedly created the fake Facebook account could be held liable for not requiring him to delete the page once they learned about it, Bloomberg News reports.
“Parents may be held directly liable … for their own negligence in failing to supervise or control their child with regard to conduct which poses an unreasonable risk of harming others,” the appellate court stated in its decision.
Other cyberbullying lawsuits have been filed in Texas, Louisiana, Tennessee and elsewhere, with many of the claims alleging that school districts should be held liable for failing to halt the alleged attacks.
It will be important to track these lawsuits as they move forward. The outcomes of these cases will help to define the gist of cyberbullying lawsuits and the extent to which liability may be extended to parents, schools and others.