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Can Teen Texting Put YOU Behind Bars?

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Are we legally responsible for what our kids do on phones WE bought them and computers WE pay for? A leading bullying expert and attorney weigh in.

teen texting, hand, prison bars

In an unusual legal case arising from the increasingly popular practice known as "sexting," six Pennsylvania high school students are facing child pornography charges after three teenage girls allegedly took nude or semi-nude photos of themselves and shared them with male classmates via their cell phones.

The female students at Greensburg Salem High School in Greensburg, Pa., all 14 or 15 years old, face charges of manufacturing, disseminating or possessing child pornography while the boys, who are 16 and 17, face charges of possession.

This got us thinking ... if parents are paying for these phones, are we legally liable for what our kids do on them?

To find out, we spoke with attorney Robin Sax, a former Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney who specialized in prosecuting sex crimes against children. She's the author of six books, including Predators and Child Molesters: What Every Parent Needs to Know To Keep Kids Safe.

"You first have to separate the two justice systems -- civil liability and criminal liability," she says. "Criminal culpability is what most people are concerned about. They think, 'Am I going to have to go to jail and register as a sex offender if my kid did something on his cell phone or on my computer?'"

She says prosecutors might know a picture was sent from your kid's phone (that you pay for), but don't know exactly who sent it. "I think they would have a hard time charging the parents in that case," Sax explains. "Even if you own the phone, that doesn't make you criminally liable unless you sent the picture yourself. And they would have a hard time proving the parents sent the picture beyond a reasonable doubt."

However, she says you could possibly face a civil suit. "From a civil point of view, the parents could potentially be sued. In a civil suit, they're going after the money -- and who has the money? The parents," she says. "The standard of proof is much lower in a civil suit. If you own the phone and you pay the phone bills, you're deemed to have ownership and control, so you could be found liable. Also, do parents have a duty to protect and monitor their child? This might also come into play during a civil case."

What happens online is also a legal concern for parents. Mom Lori Drew was found guilty of three counts of gaining unauthorized access to MySpace for the purpose of obtaining information on Megan Meier, a 14-year-old who later committed suicide. In that case, Drew definitely played an active role in the harrassment. But what if your teen harrasses someone online and you have no knowledge of it?

Sax says the same rules apply -- a criminal suit against you is unlikely, but a civil suit could be a possibility.

Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence, says the laws regarding kids' behavior online and parental responsibility are constantly evolving, "The laws are coming down fast and furious," she says. "I'm always getting updates. It's a hugely changing, moving, dynamic thing."

She says kids' use of technology is so interconnected to the way they communicate, she doesn't even teach separate "cyber-bullying" classes or seminars anymore. "It's interwoven into every single thing they do," she says. "From age 5 or 6, they're on Webkinz. By third, fourth, and fifth grades, it's Club Penguin. By sixth grade, it's iPhone, iTouch, cell phones and texting. There's no way to talk about bullying WITHOUT mentioning technology."

She says parents don't necessarily have to install Spyware and monitor their kids' every move, but they should have all their kids' user names and passwords. Wiseman says parents should also let their children know that they reserve the right to check their online profiles or cell phone at any given time. "You can say, 'Look, I have a life, and I don't want to be constantly reviewing what you do. But I do reserve the right to check this when I want,'" Wiseman advises. "A little bit of paranoia and fear in a kid is a good thing."

She says Monday is a good time to check the phone (right after the weekend), as well as any time "your mom gut is going off."

At some schools she works with, Wiseman says the coaches even make kids give them their Facebook user names and passwords so coaches can closely monitor their pages. If students don't hand over that information, they can't play.

Do you think moms should be criminally liable for what kids send from their phones or post online?

next: Pay French Homework Website to do Your Math
57 comments so far | Post a comment now
H Michael Harvey March 4, 2009, 1:40 AM

As a former criminal defense and personal injury attorney, I believe Robin Sax is correct in her analysis of teenage phone use where the phone was provided by the parent.

One suggestion to parents in a situation where they my be civilly sued is to have your home owners policy paid up to date as it can be a source for paying any judgment that may arise in a situation described above.

G March 4, 2009, 10:28 AM

I have wrote on this topic as well and I hold very strong beliefs about cell phones in the hands of children. I do believe parents should be held liable. To what extent, I don’t know. Judges should be creative. But kids shouldn’t be the only ones to be punished. Parents are still in control or SHOULD be. Parents need to stop abdicating their responsibilities. Children don’t have to have cell phones. Convenience is not a valid excuse in my opinion.

2 cents March 4, 2009, 10:50 AM

Kids are such spoiled brats! Come on, does your child really need the newest cell phone with all the bells and whistles? As far as I am concerned, many generations of people got on well without cell phones. If my kid wants a phone, she can buy it herself and pay for her top up plan herself. I am sick of hearing parents complain about their kids cell phone bill, you bought it for them didn’t you?

Angela Gebhart March 4, 2009, 6:58 PM

Cell phones are a great idea for kids.If your child was taken would’nt you want them to have a cell phone. Kids are kids they will do stupid things thats how they learn.If your child was in an accident or an emergency would’nt you want them to have a cell phone.Growing up I did’nt have alot of things either,but kids did’nt bring guns to school to kill all their classmates either.We also didn’t have to worry about jhonny the pervert down the street as much either. There was some crime but nothing like the world today. So I think cell phones are a wonderful thing but if they misuse them they should pay the price,not jail community service or something,and if that does’nt do it then maybe something more harsh.Parents should’nt be punished for tring to keep their children safe.We do the best we can do and pray our children do the right thing.

Julie March 5, 2009, 10:45 AM

Crime has always existed, Angela. I was in high school when Columbine happened and we didn’t use cells phones then. Parents are raising spoiled brats. If they’re providing the phone and paying for the service they can and should be held partially liable.

XRumerTest March 5, 2009, 1:08 PM

Hello. And Bye.

Bill March 5, 2009, 1:25 PM

To many lawyers to many laws. That is why the US has more people in prison than any other country in the world. In the US 1 of every 31 adults is in prison,on probation,or parole. We have millions more in prison than China or Russia. We have become a hateful society. If we don’t agree with something- it should be criminal,even if it not really harmful. Of course everything is harmful and everyone needs to be in jail or civily liable.

Angela Gebhart March 6, 2009, 10:03 AM

Ok Julie I’m 37 you must be younger,and no when I was in high school u did not hear of kids coming to school and killing their classmates.And if you recall kids were calling their parents on their cell phones at Columbine when all of that happened.If kids want to show them selfs naked to other kids well their either going to do it with a cell phone or find some other way.

Kallenn March 11, 2009, 12:15 PM

Yes and no. I feel that parents need to be involved actively in their children’s lives however keeping up with their every breath is virtually impossible. I had a situation where my daughter duped me into thinking she was always on the up and up until…the other shoe dropped. I am a very active parent. Not too busy outside the home, always spend quality time with my kids and involve them in things that are positive and healthy including online and cell phone use. I got stung. I was literally blown away! The “mom gut” was going off and I kept adressing it but my daughter knew exactly where and how to cover up her actions. Again, I was blwon away! Heart broken and shocked that I, a parent that is close but not so much I can’t see the forest from the trees, got taken! It happens! Parents, do your best and when it all comes down to the wire, the judge, or whomever, will see you are a great parent. In my daughters case, we held her accountable and she did the time necessary to erradicate her issues. Now she is happy and enjoying life in bible college! Accountability now is a plus but when the rubber hits the road, accountabilty (after the fact) was what saved her life! Act now parents! You can be aware of your childrens actions but also give yourself a break…you’re only human! Mom

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Andy December 23, 2009, 10:13 AM

Citizens for Legislative Change, America

I truly believe teens do not need a cell phone that is a camera, and unlimited use of cell phones including texting.
Branding a teen a sex offender for life for sending nude photos is just wrong… kids do what kids do.

Bob June 9, 2010, 7:29 AM

I believe I allready have been acknowledged about this subject
at job yesterday by a colleague, but at that moment
it didn’t caugh my attention.

Jane June 9, 2010, 8:30 AM

I think I allready have been acknowledged about this topic
at work 1 day ago by a mate, but at that moment
it didn’t caugh my attention.

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