Am I liable for my kids’ inappropriate use of the Internet and social media?

A teenager using a tablet to connect to the internet.
A teenager using a tablet to connect to the internet. Stock photo by Getty Images.

It is back-to-school time. Parents and teachers must prepare themselves for kids being on the Internet at school, at home, and possibly everywhere in between thanks to cell phones.

Social media sites and apps such as Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and YouTube are particularly popular, making children vulnerable to cyberbullying and many others ills of the computer age.

If you are a parent and have a Bart Simpson-type child, you may have wondered what legal troubles you child can cause through their online behaviour. Canada is moving toward holding parents responsible for inappropriate online activities of their children such as cyberbullying.

Generally speaking, courts have not held parents liable for their kids’ behaviour unless the child committed the wrong with the knowledge, consent, or participation of their parent.

Courts have found parents liable if they knew their child was a troublemaker and did not limit or supervise the child’s actions.

For example, the Ontario Court of Appeal held parents liable in the case of Thibodeau v. Cheff, where a child carried matches regularly and the father did nothing to stop him even though a neighbour complained multiple times. The matches set the neighbour’s farm harvest on fire.

Courts have also found parents liable if the child caused property damage or hurt another person while being employed by the parent.

A number of provinces have parental liability acts, such as B.C.’s Parental Liability Act, that find parents responsible when their child is involved in vandalism resulting in property damage. This may extend to vandalizing school property.

Parents are also held liable when their negligence contributes or results in the child’s wrongdoing. For instance, if parents leave a gun out unsupervised and their child ends up shooting someone with the gun.

In the age of social media, things get more complicated. Apps and web sites provide anonymous, easy-to-access platforms for activities such as cyberbullying. To date, a number of teens have committed suicide in Canada as a result of being bullied, harassed, and blackmailed online.

Many provinces, including Ontario and Quebec, have laws that define bullying and cyberbullying and set out penalties for perpetrators. Nova Scotia and Manitoba go a step further and make parents liable for their children’s cyberbullying if they knew about it and did nothing. The Nova Scotia law is currently being challenged for being too broad and limiting free speech.

Under Nova Scotia law, for instance, a parent is considered to engage in cyberbullying when a minor in their care engages in a cyberbullying activity where the parent knows or ought to know that the act will cause harm, and fails to take steps to prevent the activity from continuing.

Cyberbullying may also lead to civil and criminal charges in all provinces if it can be considered defamation, libel, or harassment.

Additionally, in March of 2015, a new law came out that applies across Canada. Bill C-13 bans non-consensual distribution of intimate images. It makes it a crime under the Canadian Criminal Code to text naked pictures or explicit videos without permission, for example. This law applies to everyone including people under 18. The maximum penalty is five years in prison.

No one has been convicted under this new law yet. It goes after those who “knowingly” make an intimate image available without the other side’s consent. Parents who have knowledge of their children’s online behaviour and do nothing about it may be charged when intimate pictures are involved.

The Canadian government website — Get Cyber Safe — contains articles and educational videos for parents to become aware of online threats and make online safety a priority in the household.

Yes, your child may be much more computer savvy than you are, but it is important that you educate yourself and them on how to be safe and keep others safe online.

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