Parents are on hook when children commit crimes on social media

Recent studies and criminal investigations reveal that parents need to start educating themselves more about how they may be liable for their children's actions Photo: Associated press

WASHINGTON, October 22, 2013  The American Academy of Pediatrics has issued new guidelines which recommend, among other things, that parents limit a child’s daily screen time with video games, iPad, mobile phones, and television to 1-2 hours per day.

The trade association cites the damaging effects of children’s prolonged and extended exposure to online and TV entertainment including, obesity, cyberbullying and violence.  Another media report from August has suggested that by the end of this year, many school systems will hire contractors and initiate processes to monitor students’ social media activity in order to track cyberbullying.

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Yesterday’s Pediatric Academy report came the same day Common Sense media released its own study saying that almost 2 out of 5 children have used a tablet or smartphone before they could speak in full sentences. It further found by age 8, 72% of children have used a smartphone, tablet or similar device.

These reports could be the wakeup call that parents need, even in their own lives.  

Over the past 3 weeks, we have seen news stories highlight situations where parents and other adults have found themselves close to losing their livelihood and being sent to jail over their children’s social media activity.

Cases in point:

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  1. A Florida Sheriff says he is considering arresting the parents of 12- and 14-year old girls who bullied another girl , Rebecca Sedwick to the point the 12-year old threw herself off an embankment and committed suicide.  In a Facebook post last week,  the 14-year old bully wrote, “Yes, I bullied Rebecca and she killed herself but I don’t give a f___”   Her mom appeared on CNN under disguise insisting her daughter’s Facebook page was hacked. The Sheriff’s department stated it was looking for reasons to charge the parents for not doing more to cull their child’s bullying.  Recently, Sedwick’s mom said she is prepared to sue the bullies’ parents.
  2. Attorney General for Maryland Douglas Gansler, who is currently running for governor of the state, was pictured in an Instagram photo in the middle of what looks like an underage keger in a Delaware vacation home he and other parents rented to celebrate his son’s high school graduation earlier this year.  In the photo, Gansler even appears to be taking a “selfie” of himself in the party, though he said he was just sending a text message.  It is the latest in a round of scandals. Ganslar had already been under fire during the campaign over news that he ordered his security detail to use their police sirens to speed thru stop lights when he was running late for events.  After first denying culpability of other children at the event and saying he didn’t know there was alcohol served, Gansler eventually owned up to not making the right call.
  3. MD Attorney General and current gubernatorial candidate Doug Gansler appeared in an Instagram photo in the middle of an underage kegger at a Delaware beach home.- Instagram/Baltimore Sun credit


  4. Another Maryland father to a 16-year old high school teen under investigation for drug selling may himself face charges.  Police arrested the son after viewing the over 600 photos of underage drinking and drug use on his Instagram social media photo-sharing account.  Investigators found a gun in the home and determined that the teen may have been selling marijuana with supervision and consent of his father.
  5. And though not involving teens, but moreso young adults, several posted photos of what many consider being racially insensitive costumes and faced signficant backlash from other web users over them.  An Australian woman named Olivia had an Africa-Themed costume party recently to celebrate her 21st birthday. She posted photos from the event on Facebook which included images of guests dressed as gorillas, in KKK outfits and in blackface as  “witch doctor”- like characters, and in African costumes and garb.  This weekend, two white Halloween party attendees were seen in a photo dressed as Trayvon Martin with a bloody gun wound on his shirt and in Blackface and  the other as George Zimmerman with the word “Neighborhood Watch” printed on his shirt.  Social media users found out the personal information of those in the Martin/Zimmerman photo and slammed their businesses and other personal accounts with irate messages, complaints and negative feedback.  Given the heavy rate of attacks, those pictured were forced to make their public pages private, delete images, scrub and in some cases, delete social media accounts altogether.
  6. Not long ago, prosecutors in the Trayvon Martin case asked a judge to sanction defense attorney Don West over the Instagram photo of himself with his daughters eating ice cream after he cross examined a key witness.  West said he had no clue his daughter had uploaded the photo on the social media site with comments suggesting the witness was dumb.  “I never anticipated that the picture would be released via social media,” West had to say in a statement. “It was not taken for any such purpose or in any way as a comment on anything having to do with the case. To me it was a private moment with my family.” The statement didn’t stop prosecutors from asking the judge to also repriman West for the social media sharing.


Without commentary on the specifics of the underlying crimes and details of each social media share, there are many lessons to be learned in all of this activity for parents.

  1. Realize that your children are on social media sites including new and existing ones that you know nothing about.  Facebook and Twitter have become ubiquitous and well known, but every year new platforms crop up that your tweens and teens are using that you may be clueless about.  Many parents are unaware of sites like,  Kick,  Snapchat and others that have been used in many cyberbullying cases. They may think because they are friends with their kids’ on Facebook and follow their Twitter accounts that they have a handle on it all. They don’t.
  2. As in case of the Facebook bully, defending your child’s online behavior and interaction with other children will be difficult if you are unaware they are even on the platform. Just don’t incriminate yourself, especially in the media, until do your own parental investigation, get help and gather all the facts.
  3. As in the case of the parents of bullied children, physically removing a child from an environment where they are bullied as Rebecca Sedwick’s parents did will not necessarily solve the problem. Children are connecting with each other in the digital world under your noses so intervention must include an exploration in your child’s mobile phone access and texts.
  4. Be aware that there are several apps that will permit a child to hide her text messages and downloaded apps from you.  Also, realize that many modern browsers are equipped with security browsing functions that enable users to surf the net without the history of the sites visited being stored in “history” tab.  Tweens and teens are using all tools available to them to hide their activities and it’s easiest to do with parents who are afraid of technology and ambivalent about learning more.
  5. Be prepared for guests of any private event you host in your home to share images of your party or home to the world via various social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, for example.  Currently, reality TV personality Kim Kardashian and her mega rapper fiancé Kanye West are suing a guest who, despite signing a strict confidentiality contract, videotaped and shared widely snippets from their private engagement.  It’s a new risk you now face and have to endure when you hold events in your home.  Even if you request politely or even go to extreme measure to try to avoid it, there is no sure way of restricting guests from taking photos and sharing them.
  6. Children (and adults) love showing off to their hundreds or thousands of followers their fabulous lives and don’t always consider if the images they are sharing are against the law. They also do not consider that college admission officials, potential employers and law enforcement officers can and may also look at their images they share. And if they are already under investigation or suspicion, as in the case of the drug dealing 16-year old, they are only helping the police officers’ case against them and assisting them in their evidence gathering.  As the parents of slain Florida teen Trayvon Martin learned, images their son posted in social media without their knowledge of him smoking pot, possibly holding a gun and showing off gold teeth covers, grills,  were used against him in the court of public opinion.  Even his text messages suggesting drug use and Martin referring to himself as a “gangsta” were released. The phone included images of a person holding a gun and a marijuana plant all were released to the public and subsequently, the media. Those images perhaps helped observers of the case ascertain that he was a “thug” and more likely than not took steps to escalate an encounter with Zimmerman that ultimately led to his own death.  
  7. Know that any photo your child takes of you with her or his phone may possibly be uploaded into social media. It’s a good idea to either give a blanket restriction or follow every photo opportunity with instructions related to who and how it can be shared.  Also, install various extensions and add-ons available that will auto send every text and image sent to you as well.

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Parents cannot escape social media any longer. They have to be aware that it is a very intricate part of their children’s lives and will continue to be for decades to come.  They have to understand that there are various new social media platforms out there children are populating. 

Once you give your child access to tools that can be used to share images and words in a way that could be considered illegal, you are officially accountable for knowing all the ways that access can be abused.

Question. Be curious. Discover and don’t take the see no evil, hear no evil approach and hope for the best because that is a recipe for disaster. Ask the parents of the children involved in these scenarios if they would have wished they would have done things differently. 


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Jeneba Ghatt
Jeneba Jalloh Ghatt is a former journalist turned lawyer turned citizen journalist. Currently, she manages her boutique communications law firm, where she has represented small businesses and nationally-recognized civil and consumer rights organizations before the United States Supreme Court, federal courts and the FCC. She also covers the White House and US Congress for the online news site while authoring her own influential blog which is frequently accessed by top policy makers and think tanks, and the investment community. focuses on the intersection of politics and technology and reports on policies and rules in the communications and tech sector.
Before opening her law firm, The Ghatt Law Group, which was the first communications firm owned by women and minorities, Jeneba regulated Comcast and Starpower as the Assistant General Counsel for the District of Columbia's Office of Cable Television and Telecommunications, and at one point was the only communications regulatory attorney in the entire city. She is founding member and policy chair for a new trade association, the National Association of Multicultural Digital Entrepreneurs and provides advice and counsel to new businesses in the tech industry, particularly small businesses owned by women and minorities.

Born in Sierra Leone, West Africa, but raised in the United States by her Catholic mom and Muslim dad, she started her college career creating web content for one of the earliest websites in history while working part time for the University of Maryland's Office of Technology. Following her graduation from the Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law, she founded and co-wrote one of the earliest blogs and since then has gone on to found and author six different widely read and influential blogs. She was one of only 22 writers and bloggers to attend the first White House summit for African American media.
She holds a Certificate in Communications Law Studies from Catholic; a Juris Doctor from there as well, and a Master of Law in advocacy degree from the Georgetown University Law Center where she first taught and lectured as a Staff Attorney and Graduate fellow at that law school's Institute for Public Representation. She later went on to teach Media Law at the University of Maryland at College Park and guest lecture at Yale Law School and Penn State University, College of Telecommunications. She is well skilled and versed with social media and manages several Twitter, Facebook, Linked In accounts and groups.
She sits on the board of several non profits and trade associations.

Contact Jeneba Ghatt


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