The leaves are changing and the kids are back in school, with the fall semester now in full swing. In addition to the usual issues concerning parents of school- and college-age students — running the gamut from homework to heartache — parents should be aware of (and talk with their children about) the responsible use of social networking and electronic communications. In this age of aggressive anti-bullying legislation and strict zero-tolerance policies, schools are highly alert to bullying concerns. As a consequence of this heightened sensitivity, educational institutions may overreact to any suspected “cyberbullying,” and what once may have been viewed as typical adolescent behavior may now draw unwanted attention from school administrators or possibly even law enforcement.

As the new school year gets underway, now is a good time to discuss this issue with your child. Below are some tips for parents about talking with your children about responsible texting, tweeting, and Facebooking, to help insure you and your child are fully protected.

The Climate: Bullying, both online and in real life, continues to be a widespread problem across the nation. Recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics indicates that 36% of middle school students, and 25.8% of high school students, have reported being bullied.1 According to a survey conducted for the National Crime Prevention Council, 43% of teens reported having experienced some form of cyberbullying in the year preceding the survey.2

In the wake of several high-profile news stories concerning the tragedies of students who, after prolonged campaigns of harassment by their classmates, were driven to suicide, states across the nation have enacted tough new anti-bullying statutes.3 According to one watchdog organization, 47 states now have anti-bullying legislation on the books, with 20 of those states having passed their statutes since 2007.4

As a result, there is tremendous societal and political pressure exerted on institutions at every level, from elementary school through college, to respond vigorously to reports of activity that not long ago may have been shrugged off as just “kids being kids.” We expect that, spurred by liability concerns, educational institutions will have no choice but to overcorrect by strictly enforcing the new anti-bullying laws and related school policies, with little regard to the severity of the conduct. Already secondary schools and colleges are revising their student handbooks and codes of conduct to incorporate these concerns, providing for swift investigation of bullying charges and severe consequences for offenders.

The Concern: The popularity and ubiquity of electronic communications among teens requires no discussion. A typical teenager’s day sees a 24-hour barrage of emails, instant messages, text messages, and Facebook updates.5 And unlike a telephone call, which parents might overhear (or at least notice on a cell phone bill), these activities are largely silent, going unnoticed and largely escaping parental monitoring. It is therefore important for parents to affirmatively reach out to their children to discuss their online activities, the appropriate uses of these technologies, and the severe real-world consequences that can follow from their improper use.

Consider, for example, the following:

  • A Florida high school senior was suspended from school after she created a Facebook page criticizing her teacher. The page complained that her English teacher was “the worst teacher I’ve ever had,” and invited other students to post their own comments on the teacher. When brought to the school’s attention, the student was suspended for three days.6
  • In Wisconsin, a middle school student began a Facebook discussion, “Anyone else want to kill [teacher’s name]?” A number of students joined in by commenting on that post. Because of the “jocularity” of the comments, both the school and the local police department agreed that the students never intended to cause any harm to the teacher. Nevertheless, the student who wrote the initial post was expelled from school for a year, and was given a municipal citation for disorderly conduct.7
  • A “sexting” incident in Pennsylvania resulted in the suspension of seven eighth-graders. A student texted a picture of herself that the school described as “not pornographic, but … definitely suggestive.” 8 The girl who sent the text, along with several students who tried to view the text during school hours (in violation of the school’s cell phone policy) were suspended for three days.
  • A California high school sophomore, upset about the amount of homework his Biology teacher had assigned, called his teacher a “fat ass” in a Facebook post. He was suspended for a day for “cyber-bullying.” After his parents involved the ACLU, the school backed down, expunging the suspension from the student’s academic record.9

Suspension and expulsion from school are serious punishments that can have far-reaching consequences. Apart from the disruption to your child’s education, suspensions and expulsions will become part of your child’s permanent academic record, and are required to be disclosed in college applications. The Common Application, for example, asks whether an applicant has ever been found responsible for a disciplinary violation that led to disciplinary actions including “probation, suspension, removal, dismissal, or expulsion.” 10

Even more serious, however, is the possibility that the school may refer your child to the local district attorney’s office for investigation and possible criminal prosecution. Criminal charges, even if ultimately defeated, may have life-long consequences and will certainly be inquired after in future job applications.

Because of the potentially severe consequences that could follow from an accusation of cyberbullying, it is vitally important for parents to talk to their children about appropriate online behavior.

Tips for Talking to Your Child About Online Behavior

Public Communications: First, make sure your child understands that emails, instant messages, text messages, Facebook posts and the like are all, to some degree, “public” communications. Obviously, their very purpose is that they be seen by at least one intended recipient. However, the original recipient of an email or text message can easily forward it to others, and after that each successive recipient may forward and reforward it. Quickly, a message originally intended for only one recipient can cascade exponentially within your child’s peer group and beyond. The same goes for Facebook posts, which even if restricted via privacy settings, can be printed or captured via screenshot by authorized readers. Those individuals can then widely circulate that post via email or picture messaging. Urge your child to think twice about every message he or she sends or posts online. Ask, “How would you feel if this were blown up as a headline in tomorrow’s newspaper, or if everyone in your school read it?” Caution your child to assume that any post might be read by the person he or she would least want to read it. Tell your child that he or she is expected to act as politely online as in face-to-face interactions.

Permanence: Your child is likely tech-savvy, and may therefore be overconfident in his or her ability to establish Facebook privacy settings to restrict the audience. He or she also probably derives some comfort from having the ability to delete previous posts. However, your child may not consider the locations of additional copies of these electronic messages. While your child might be able to “wipe” his or her own smart phone clear of any emails or text messages, there is no such control over what any recipients may have done. Similarly, while a Facebook post can be “deleted,” copies may nevertheless persist in the form of screenshots or printouts of potentially damaging posts. And even once deleted from a service like Facebook, posts may nevertheless be recoverable by law enforcement through use of their subpoena power. Inform your child that it is virtually impossible to erase electronically stored information. The Internet is forever. Along those lines, it is worth reminding your child that a post that seems “funny” at age 14 might appear considerably less so when asked about at 17 during a college interview, or at 21 when applying for a job.

Inappropriate and Potentially Illegal Activities: Talk to your child about what constitutes cyberbullying behavior. According to a guide published by the Massachusetts Attorney General, cyberbullying may encompass sending “hurtful, hateful, derogatory, harassing or threatening messages to others”; “spreading rumors”; and/or “sending personal or embarrassing information about or pictures of others—all with the intention of intimidating, frightening, ridiculing, or harming someone else.” 11

Tell your child that unacceptable Internet activity may lead to school disciplinary action, or even criminal proceedings, and includes the following behavior that must be avoided:

  • Revealing his or her password or the passwords of others;
  • Sending email messages, instant messages or text messages to others disguising himself or herself as another person;
  • Spreading rumors or false information about others;
  • Sending rude, harassing or threatening email messages, instant messages or text messages;
  • Creating websites that ridicule, humiliate, or intimidate others; and/or
  • Posting on websites or disseminating embarrassing or inappropriate pictures or images of others.12

If Your Child is Accused: No parent wants to imagine that his or her child could be accused of cyberbullying. If your child is accused, it is important that you understand your child’s school’s disciplinary process and your child’s rights.

  • School Policy: Read the school’s student handbook or code of conduct. This document will describe the school’s process for investigating and punishing disciplinary infractions and will provide an overview of what procedures you can expect. Your high school student may or may not have the right to have an attorney present during the school’s disciplinary proceedings. Colleges typically permit students to be represented by legal counsel at such proceedings. It is important to understand, from the outset, what the process will entail and what rights attach.
  • Interviewing Your Child: The school will likely seek to interview your child very early after learning of any alleged wrongdoing, perhaps even before contacting you. The school may summon your child to meet with the principal, and frequently will include another school official, a school resource officer, or even, in certain circumstances, a uniformed police officer. During this meeting, these individuals will take notes of what your child says, and those notes may portray a very one-sided version of the events.

Most students are unaware that they have choices when confronted with this situation. Tell your child he or she is under absolutely no obligation to speak to school officials, school security officials, and especially law enforcement before first discussing the issue with a parent and/or legal counsel. Your child has the right to (and should) speak with you first, before being railroaded before school administration or law enforcement. Your child can exercise this right non-confrontationally, for example, by simply stating that he or she has to speak to a parent or attorney first.

  • Involve an Attorney Early: With schools understandably taking a zero-tolerance approach to discipline, your child may face suspension or even expulsion from school, which will have long-lasting and indelible consequences on his or her future academic career and possibly even job prospects. For this reason, it can be very helpful to consult with an attorney early on to advise you on how best to guide your child through the school’s disciplinary process. You may ultimately decide not to have the attorney attend the proceeding, but an experienced attorney can provide important guidance in preparation. “A lawyer can advise on everything from how you should dress and looking a person in the eye to more complicated issues like evaluating the risk of admitting responsibility.” 13
  • Criminal Charges: In any event, if there is any possibility of criminal charges (an outcome arising more and more frequently, as schools and district attorneys coordinate closely on disciplinary issues), you should consult an attorney before your child makes any statement to a school official or law enforcement officer. A lawyer may also help by ensuring the disciplinary proceeding is conducted impartially, that the school’s own established procedures are followed, and that an accurate record is prepared in case the student ultimately needs to go to court.14

If Your Child is the Victim of Cyberbullying: You should also discuss what steps your child can take if he or she experiences cyberbullying. Tell your child what cyberbullying is, and describe what it looks like. If your child has experienced any such activity, assure him or her that it is not acceptable and that he or she has a right not to be treated that way. Your child should tell you or another trusted adult about any worrisome messages. Counsel your child to never engage or try to respond to any mean or inappropriate messages, and certainly do not attempt to retaliate. Keep a record of the time and content of any inappropriate messages your child has received, and do not delete any emails, texts, or other messages. If possible, print out a copy of the inappropriate messages. Your child can also take steps to stop receiving further messages. For example, Facebook enables your child to “Unfriend” or “Block” people, preventing them from further contacting your child, viewing his or her information, or posting further messages. Abusive content may also be reported to Facebook, as a violation of its Terms of Service, using the links available on that site.15 Similar resources are available on YouTube16 and Google+.17 You may also file a report of cyberbullying with your Internet Service Provider or cell phone service provider. If your child and the cyberbully attend the same school, inform school administrators. Finally, if the messages contain any threats of violence, coercion, or intimidation, you should report this to law enforcement immediately