Georgia Parents Can be Liable for Not Supervising Children Who Use Facebook to Harass Others

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A decision issued last week by the Georgia Court of Appeals should serve as a wake up call to all Georgia parents whose children use Facebook or other social media tools. In the case, the Georgia Court of Appeals held that parents in Georgia can be held liable if they fail to take steps to compel their child to delete offensive Facebook posts that harm or defame another. A link to the full opinion is at the end of this post.

The Facts of the Case

The case was filed by the parents of a 7th grade girl at Palmer Middle School in Kennesaw after they learned that two of their daughters classmates had created a cruel Facebook page in which they posed as the young girl and created a fake Facebook account and profile. According to news reports, the fake profile they created included a distorted photo of the 7th grade girl and said that the languages she speaks were English and “Retardish.” There were also posts about false sexual exploits, links to racist videos on YouTube and implications of drug use. The creators of the page also used the account to post insults on the pages of other friends.

Within a day or two of the creation of the page, the account was connected to over 70 “Friends.” The 7th grade girl and her parents went to the school principal for help getting the Facebook page taken down. The two 7th graders admitted what they had done and were given two days of in-school suspension.

In his written statement, the 7th grade boy (Dustin Boston) who had created the false page stated:

“In homeroom, Melissa and I decided to make a Facebook [page] under someone’s name and she said, “Who do we hate in this room?” I said “I don’t know, Alex Boston?” So we made up a username and a password for it. We went home and made the Facebook [page]. I chose Alex Boston because she followed me around and my friends did not like her and told her to leave me alone. I went home and made Alex Boston’s Facebook [page]. Melissa went home to her house and pretended to be Alex. . . I went home and posted on Alex’s [fake] Facebook [page for] about 4 or 5 days. Melissa went and posted on it the same time.”

Dustin Boston’s parents were told about what their son had done and disciplined him by forbidding him for one week from seeing his friends after school. Most significantly, they did not make any efforts to get the fake and cruel Facebook page deleted or to even look at the page themselves and compel Dustin to correct it in any way.

Indeed, according to the Court of Appeals decision Facebook’s records show that for months after Dustin’s parents were told about the fake and cruel page and Dustin had been disciplined for creating it that the fake Facebook page continued to extend and accept requests to become Facebook Friends with additional users and that other users viewed and posted on the unauthorized page.

Here is a quick snap shot of the chronology of events:

The Court’s Analysis

Under Georgia law, parents will not be liable for the actions of their children simply because they are their parents. Parents will, however, be held liable for the actions of their children under Georgia law if they fail to supervise or control their child with regard to conduct that poses an unreasonable risk of harming others.

In this case, the Court of Appeals was very troubled by the failure of Dustin’s parents to take any steps to take down the offensive Facebook page after they learned about it. Here’s what the Court had to say:

“During the 11 months the unauthorized profile and page could be viewed, the Athearns made no attempt to view the unauthorized page, and they took no action to determine the content of the false, profane, and ethnically offensive information that Dustin was charged with electronically distributing. They did not attempt to learn to whom Dustin had distributed the false and offensive information or whether the distribution was ongoing. They did not tell Dustin to delete the page. Furthermore, they made no attempt to determine whether the false and offensive information Dustin was charged with distributed could be corrected, deleted, or retracted.”

It was this failure to act after they learned of the offensive and cruel Facebook postings that their son had made that caused the Court of Appeals to conclude that a jury should hear the case. If the case does not settle, the case will now proceed to a jury trial. The jury will be asked to decide whether the negligence of Dustin’s parents in failing to compel Dustin to delete or correct the Facebook posts caused some part of the injury the 7th grade girl sustained from Dustin’s actions and inactions.

Lessons for Parents

Over 95% of all teens ages 12 to 17 are now on-line.

81% of online teens use some kind of social media.

77% of online teens use Facebook.

24% of online teens use Twitter.

Our children need our guidance on what is appropriate and not appropriate to be said on-line. This case is a wakeup call to us all. It’s no longer ok to sit back and say, “well, I really don’t understand all that Facebook (or Twitter or Instagram or Vine or ….) stuff.”

Talk to your children. Share your values. Explain how harmful on-line comments can be.

Explain this case and that you can be financially responsible for their actions.

Monitor what your children are doing and saying on-line.

Most importantly, take prompt steps to delete and/or correct any offensive or defamatory statements made by your children on-line.