5 Laws Your Kids Could Be Breaking OnlineJennifer Martinez
Not long ago, life was simpler. Parents worried about their kids hitting a baseball through the neighbor's window or swiping a candy bar from the corner store. Sounds almost quaint, doesn't it?
Now, the Internet has given children much farther reach to play pranks -- or even to break the law. Juveniles can face serious consequences for illegal online activity. But the trouble may not end there. Liability can also extend to parents. For example, when the record industry decided to crack down on illegal song downloads, they targeted the people who paid for the downloader’s Internet service. That means some parents -- and even grandparents -- were named in the lawsuits, even though it was their children -- or grandchildren -- who were illegally downloading the music.
In another case, two teenage students made false and damaging statements about their assistant principal on a MySpace account. The principal sued the students -- and their parents -- for defamation, libel, negligence and negligent supervision.
While parental liability for the acts of children is not a new concept, these first Internet cases broke new ground. As new situations arise, it's difficult to predict just how far parental liability will reach. This much is clear, however: parents have been sued in civil court for their kids’ online behavior, and statutes in some states appear to hold parents criminally liable for their kids' online actions -- whether the parents know about the actions or not.
Here are five common ways kids can get in trouble online:
1. Pirating music and software It's easy for kids to download copyrighted music and movies, or to make illegal copies of software. These activities are the equivalent of stealing, and as the music industry has demonstrated, owners of copyrighted materials are not afraid to sue for infringement.
2. Libel and defamation Sites like MySpace give kids and teens a big stage for self-expression, and they're not shy about using it. In some instances, however, they take things too far, using these sites to attack peers or teachers, for example. These attacks can sometimes amount to libel or defamation lawsuits, or disciplinary action at school.
3. Malicious code writing Kids have been known to hole up in their rooms and write code for computer viruses. Some release this code into the world. In one case, a teen wrote a worm that caused widespread disruption on the Internet. He ended up being convicted and sentenced under criminal laws.
4. Credit card abuse Taking money from mom's purse is one thing. Stealing a credit card and going on an online shopping spree is on a whole other level. Whether kids are charging music, games or clothing without permission, running up debt in another person's name (even if it's a parent's name) is technically identity theft and fraud.
5. Online con games Just as kids can buy things they can't pay for, they can also try to sell things they don't own. For example, it's fairly easy to open an online auction account, take a picture of a neighbor's bicycle and offer to sell it online -- fully intending to pocket the money and virtually "skip town."
To keep your kids out of trouble online, parents need to lay down some rules, lead by example, and help children understand the potential consequences of illegal online activities. Here's how to get started:
Start a dialogue Talk with your kids about how their online actions can cause very real harm to others, and how they could get themselves -- and you -- in serious legal trouble. Explain what kinds of activities are illegal and let them know you're available to talk should they wonder whether a contemplated activity is against the law.
Set some ground rules Place limits on the amount of time your kids spend online. Don't allow them to shop online without your permission or knowledge. Try to keep your computers in a common area of the house, and consider using parental or administrative controls to restrict access to certain programs and websites. Make it clear you won't tolerate illegal behavior on the Internet, just as you wouldn't tolerate stealing or vandalizing in your neighborhood.
Stay involved Once you've opened a dialogue and set some ground rules, stay involved in your kids' online activities. Ask them to show you their favorite blogs and MySpace profiles. Talk with them about the latest trends and technologies and how to use them. Try to make it fun.
Set a good example Take software and music piracy seriously. Communicate respectfully with others on the Internet. In general, act the way you want your kids to act online. Remember, they're always watching and taking their cues from you.
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