Parental Liability for the Online Conduct of Their Children

October 27, 2014

Child Online ProtectionThe topic of parental liability for the online conduct of their children is currently in a state of flux.  Actions by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) limit the liability of parents when their children make purchases using apps and other online platforms without their permission.  Yet certain court actions, such as a recent Georgia appeals court decision, recognize parental liability, in some instances, for the online actions of their children.

Federal authorities have long recognized that the online activities of children merit special legal attention.  That attention was primarily focused on efforts to protect the privacy of personal information associated with children.  More recently, it has been expanded to include consumer protection initiatives associated with commercial transactions involving children.

Authorities recognize, for example, that the widespread use of mobile apps presents significant issues involving oversight of commercial purchases made by children.  Apps sometimes make it difficult to identify when a purchase has been made.  Additionally, children frequently pay little attention to distinctions between free and payment-required elements embedded in apps.

The FTC, recognizing the challenges associated with effective oversight of purchases made through apps, limits the liability of parents for purchases made by their children.  Parents are accountable only for purchases by their children which they have authorized.

There are however, other situations in which parents can be held responsible for the online conduct of their children.  This context is illustrated by a current case involving middle school students in Cobb County, Georgia.

In 2011, two students created a false Facebook page under the name of another student.  The false page made inaccurate and misleading statements regarding the targeted students political beliefs, medical condition and history, and sexual orientation.  It also included altered photographs intended to present the targeted student in an unflattering light.

The false account invited others to connect as “friends.”  Eventually, more than 70 individuals self-identified as “friends” of the fake account.  When the fake account was discovered, it was reported to the school principal who in turn identified the students involved and required them to serve two-day suspensions.

Despite the fact that the school identified the problem and took remedial action, the false Facebook page remained accessible for nearly one year.  Only after a lawsuit was filed on behalf of the targeted student was the false page removed.  Among the issues raised in that lawsuit is the question of parental liability.  The Georgia appeals court handling the case determined that the parents could be held liable here because they permitted the online material to remain accessible after they became aware of its existence.

Perhaps the key lesson associated with liability for online conduct of young people is that parents and guardians must make reasonable efforts to monitor and oversee the actions of their children.  Although authorities recognize the practical limits on the ability of adults to control the online conduct of young people, those authorities expect adults to provide a reasonable level of supervision over the online activities of their children.