Cyberbullying of Children & Potential Legal Action
As children spend increasing amounts of time online, behaviors that traditionally occurred during in-person interactions may seep into internet interactions as well. Cyberbullying is a form of bullying that occurs on social media, in online forums, through messaging apps or emails, and in online gaming communities, among other places. Cyberbullying may be harder for an adult to notice than conventional bullying because it is less likely to occur when they are present. It can flare up at all times of day and night, so victims may struggle to escape from it. Reputational harm from cyberbullying that is not effectively corrected may extend into adult life, undermining a child’s educational and employment prospects.
Cyberbullying May Backfire
Sometimes a child who engages in cyberbullying also suffers reputational harm because the record of their actions may stay publicly accessible.
Recognizing and Responding to Cyberbullying
Some common types of cyberbullying include:
Harassment: sending threatening or hurtful messages to the victim
Stalking: tracking the victim’s online actions and presence relentlessly
Denigration: posting rumors or other false information about the victim
Outing: publicly revealing personal or sensitive information about the victim, such as a medical condition or their sexual orientation
Exclusion: intentionally leaving the victim out of an online group in which they would normally expect to participate
Fraping: logging into the victim’s social media account and impersonating them while posting inappropriate content
Parents should be alert to possible signs that their child is experiencing cyberbullying. They may try to avoid going to school, suffer a decline in academic performance, lose interest in certain activities with friends, or avoid going online, among other indicators. Some children may not want to tell an adult about cyberbullying because they are afraid of retaliation, so parents may need to initiate the conversation. If the bullying is related to school or an organized activity, parents should bring their concerns to the attention of teachers, administrators, or any other adults overseeing the activity.
Legal Action Based on Cyberbullying
Sometimes prosecutors pursue criminal charges related to cyberbullying, depending on the laws of the state. Schools also may impose sanctions on a student who has engaged in cyberbullying. In many cases, moreover, parents can file a lawsuit on behalf of their child.
Parents may be able to pursue a lawsuit even if the perpetrator of cyberbullying is not convicted of a crime. The standard of proof is lower in civil cases, so parents sometimes can establish liability even if the evidence does not support a criminal charge.
Additional parties may be liable beyond the individual perpetrator. Parental responsibility laws may hold parents legally accountable for harm caused by a minor child, although standards for liability vary by state. (In some states, a parent may face criminal charges.) Parents of a child who was bullied online also may sue a school if it negligently failed to intervene when it knew about the bullying. If they sue a school district, parents will need to comply with certain requirements for suing government entities. Limitations on lawsuits also may apply.
If they can establish liability for the harm to their child, parents may be able to recover damages for the costs caused by the cyberbullying. These might include bills for psychiatric counseling and therapy that their child needed to restore their mental health. They also can recover damages for the subjective, emotional harm that the child suffered. Damages for future losses may be available in some cases.
Consult an Attorney
Determining all of the parties potentially at fault for cyberbullying is not always straightforward. Claims also may rely on complex or novel legal theories. Thus, parents likely should consider consulting an attorney who is experienced in this area. They may be able to get a free initial consultation about their legal options.