Child's play on the Internet?

Attorney Eric J. Sinrod says a recent case could ultimately make parents legally liable for the Internet misconduct of their kids.

4 min read
Many parents worry that their children spend too much time on the Internet, fearing they might view inappropriate content or be contacted by unsavory characters. My hunch is that far fewer have ever considered that they might get sued for the online misbehavior of their kids. Well, that chicken has come home to roost.

A recent complaint filed in San Antonio, Texas, by an assistant high school principal against two former students and their parents came about because of allegedly defamatory statements 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.

Computer and Internet use is becoming a constant for modern youth, and parents cannot be with them online every single second.

The complaint says that the woman has since experienced "sleepless nights and worried days." It also states that one of the students has admitted to creating the offensive Web page, and that 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.

Because they created a Web page that contained false statements which caused the assistant principal damage, the contention is they are liable for defamation. However, the more remarkable part of the complaint is that the claims made against the parents of the former students.

It argues that parents generally owe a duty to supervise the activities of their children on the Internet. In this instance, the complaint claims these particular parents knew their kids were working with computers, supplied by the parents, to create Web pages.

The assistant principal also claims the parents knew that there was "animosity" toward her, because there was a history of prior disciplinary issues involving the former students.

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."

Plainly, parents should do their best to supervise the online activities of their children. Does that mean that parents can be on top of their kids 100 percent of the time? Probably not. Sure, steps can be taken to minimize all sorts of risks, such as teaching them what is proper Internet behavior, insisting that the family computer stays in a public place in the home, using filters that restrict access to certain types of sites, and the like.

But computer and Internet use is becoming a constant for modern youth, and parents cannot be with them online every single second. Moreover, kids generally are more tech-savvy than their parents.

Thus, when someone does the best that a reasonable parent can do, should that person be on the receiving end of a lawsuit if a child has not behaved perfectly on the Internet? Could the parents have foreseen that their kids would create this type of Web page, simply because they have Internet access and that there had been a prior disciplinary issue with the assistant principal?

The statements on the MySpace page allegedly were false and certainly painted the assistant principal in a negative light. Still, you must wonder whether everyone who visited this page would believe these statements.

We know that the Internet now contains millions of pages. While it is not right, Web pages are often created that contain false and unflattering information about specific people. Sometimes, the best approach is just to ignore them and not call attention to and highlight this information.

While the assistant principal has succeeded in launching a lawsuit against the parents of the former students, it is not yet clear whether the charges will stick. I've steered clear of mentioning the names of the parties involved in the lawsuit. But the suit is a matter of public record, and certainly has made a greater spectacle of the negative comments made by the former students against the assistant principal. Even if she ultimately wins her lawsuit, the assistant principal may inadvertently stir up more interest in the negative comments made about her.

What's more, the case also could lead parents to more closely consider their potential liability. At that point, it could even force them to consider reining in their kids' independent ways on the Internet.