I came across an interesting article today at News.com that explores the possibility of parents being sued for their children’s online activity. Well actually it is no longer a possibility but a fact with a recent lawsuit filed in San Antonio, Texas, by an assistant high school principal against two former students and their parents. The suit alleges that defamatory statements were made by the former students on their MySpace.com Web pages.
The complaint says a colleague showed the assistant principal a printout of a MySpace.com Web page that contained her photograph and name, as well as “lewd, defamatory and obscene comments, pictures and graphics.” The Web page allegedly also portrayed the assistant principal, who is married with two small children, as a lesbian. It goes on to say that the woman has since experienced “sleepless nights and worried days.” Furthermore, one of the students has admitted to creating the offensive Web page and records subpoenaed from MySpace by the local police department demonstrate that the computers used to create and update the Web page were located at the two students’ homes.
The ironic thing about this case is that the assistant principle is not suing the students but rather their parents. The argument here is that it is the parent’s duty to supervise the activities of their children on the Internet. The core allegation that deserves attention goes like this: “Allowing access to the Internet, unsupervised and without restraint, poses an obvious risk and unreasonable danger that such children would utilize the Internet for illicit purposes.”
I have mixed feelings on this. First of all I am a firm believer that parents should supervise their children’s activity online. I do with mine! In fact I have Spector Pro installed on the computer in my house that our children use. The program records everything including what web sites they have visited, emails they have sent and received, chat and instant messaging and actual screen shots of what they are seeing on the monitor. The program even allows you to restrict Internet access by certain times of the day and/or week or permanently. I love it! “Doesn’t this invade their privacy,” one might ask. The answer is yes. However my children are fully aware that the program is there and as such they know they will be held accountable for what they do.
There is just to much trouble out there on the Internet for a child to get into. Inappropriate sites, phishing scams, sites that are virus infected and the like are all within a child’s grasp. Most parents do not allow their children to venture into bad neighborhoods or hang around with the wrong crowd but completely ignore what they might come across online. Because of this I am definitely an advocate for parents monitoring and even restricting Internet access for their children. Those that don’t for whatever reason are only asking for trouble in my opinion.
That being said, we as parents cannot be held fully responsible for the actions of our children. We can do everything in our power to raise them right and yet they still have free will to make their own choices. Sometimes those choices are mistakes. In fact I have seen children raised in “Brady Bunch” type of environments that turned out rotten and children raised in horrible environments that turned out great. Yes, the environment can play a huge role but ultimately it is a matter of choice.
So should the parents of the students that committed liable and slander against the assistant principal be held accountable? I guess that will be up to a judge and jury to decide but I would think that the prosecutor would have to prove that the parents were specifically involved. For example, if they had knowledge of the act but did nothing to stop it or something along those lines, then they are liable. They should not be held guilty simply because their offspring committed the act.
How can we as parents protect ourselves from these types of scenarios? Monitoring the computer activity is a start but also the way we raise them can play a huge role. I try to teach my children that whatever decisions they make in life affect us all. If my son decides to get drunk and then go drive his car and in the process kills someone, it is not only going to affect him but me and my wife as parents. We may get sued because my son doesn’t have anything to sue for and he is our dependent. He will probably go to prison which affects us as well because we lose a son. I think once kids understand that what they do affects the whole family unit, they are better equipped to avoid some of the mistakes they might make, such as slandering someone on a MySpace page. Finally to protect assets, you can get a umbrella insurance policy to cover you for $1,000,000 or more in the case that you get sued. I’m not kidding, especially in this day and age of law suit happy people. Believe me, I have thought about doing that many, many times but just haven’t pulled the trigger quite yet.