Penalize parents of cyberbullies?

November 15, 2013 

US NEWS TEENSLAIN 4 OS

Accompanied by his attorney Mark O'Mara, right, George Zimmerman appears before Judge Mark E. Herr in Courtroom J2 at the John E. Polk Correctional Facility in Sanford, Florida, Thursday, April 12, 2012. (Gary W. Green/Orlando Sentinel/MCT)

GARY W. GREEN — MCT

Mark O'Mara has me thinking about my lack of oversight of our sons' use of social media.

O'Mara, the Florida trial lawyer who successfully defended George Zimmerman, is advocating criminal penalties for the parents of cyberbullies. The case that spurred his interest will certainly generate support for his initiative, but I'm not comfortable with where it leads.

Rebecca Sedwick, 12, took her own life by jumping from the water tower of an abandoned concrete plant in Polk County in September. Her death came after she allegedly endured extended harassment from a 12-year-old and 14-year-old, the latter of whom is accused of posting on her Facebook page: "Yes IK (I know) I bullied REBECCA (A)nd she killed her self but IDGAF ..."

The two girls have been charged with felony aggravated stalking, according to the Polk County Sheriff's Office.

Nearly three dozen states have enacted laws banning cyberbullying, but, if O'Mara gets his wish, Florida would become the first to hold the parents of cyberbullies criminally responsible.

"I do not intend to become a bill writer or lawmaker or anything like that; this just seemed to be screaming out for someone to take some action on it," he told me recently.

By the time we spoke, he'd already offered some of his legal rationale in a blog, writing:

"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 cellphone, provided by the parent, how is that different?"

With regard to the tragic death of Sedwick, O'Mara told me that the parents of the 14-year-old have suggested in interviews that they were supervising their daughter's use of her cellphone and laptop.

"I have to really look at that and say, 'How could you possibly be so unaware of what was going on when it was incessant for 11 months?'" O'Mara asked.

But if the standard for judging parents is how often they check their child's cellphone or Facebook page, I'll have a problem. Hardly a week goes by without my wife or me telling a story at the dinner table concerning bad behavior online that was pulled from the headlines or mined at our respective workplaces, always ending with our admonishment: "Be careful when you hit the send key."

I don't envy our children growing up in a world where a split-second decision made at a keypad can have life-altering consequences. All the mistakes I made at their age, and there were many, are only as permanent as people's faded memories or a frayed Xerox.

Still, my vigilance has limits. I do not touch our sons' cellphones, read their e-mail, or friend them on Facebook. Based on an unscientific survey of my radio audience, this seems to place me in a minority.

But I refuse to acknowledge any dereliction in this regard.

They have never given my wife or me any problem that would warrant what I consider to be a violation of their privacy. Which is why I told O'Mara that I'm troubled by any legal standard that says a parent who is unaware of their kids' social media is necessarily negligent. By that standard, I could end up behind bars.

"And that's one of the constitutional concerns that I acknowledge," O'Mara replied. "If you're doing that and your boys have just sent out a nasty text, I do not think that you should be held liable. But if your boys are doing that for six or seven months, and they're doing it across their platforms, (that's different)."

On that I'd agree, if the parents knew or should have known (because they were alerted) that something was wrong.

O'Mara envisions that "if the prosecutor can show that the parents were acting in a willful blind way, or in a grossly negligent way, what we call culpable negligence, where it can be shown that they so failed to maintain their obligations as parents that they should be held responsible, then I think they should be accountable."

He argues: "The Internet is a wonderful, wonderful tool. ... But, in the same sense, it's a place where child pedophiles hang out, child pornographers hang out, and where cyberbullies hang out. ... To the extent that those cyberbullies are children, Mom and Dad have an obligation to protect them -- the kids -- from learning stuff they shouldn't be learning, and from doing stuff they shouldn't be doing, and (protect) those people who they do it to."

While I'm still not accessing our sons' electronics, I will share my exchange with O'Mara at the dinner table as a lesson. And then, either I or my wife will repeat, "Be careful when you hit the send key."

Michael Smerconish, writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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