Bullying victims and bullies themselves come in all shapes and sizes, from 300-pound professional football players to pale nerds sitting in front of a computer keyboard and everything in between. About 41% of teens who participate in social media report at least one negative interaction online in the past year, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project.
Just because cyberbullying leaves no physical scars doesn’t mean it isn’t damaging. Bullying includes attacks intended to cause “fear, distress, or harm that is physical, verbal, psychological, or relational,” causing “physical injury, social and emotional distress, and even death,” according to the federal Centers for Disease Control.
Some federal authorities view cyberbullying as more sinister than regular bullying because of at least three factors:
- It can happen at any time, even when the victim is alone.
- Damaging photos and other content can be posted anonymously and distributed broadly.
- Deleting that content from digital media pages is difficult.
What makes it worse is that many cyberbullying victims and perpetrators are minors. That makes the practice difficult to police and almost impossible to eliminate. Many states rely on schools to punish kids for the behavior – even though cyberbullying frequently takes place off school property.
Because laws haven’t kept up with the expanding problem, more and more bullying victims have resorted to civil action, directly suing the families of the children who bullied them for defamation, libel, slander, or mental and emotional abuse.
Liability coverage and cyberbullying
Injuries to third parties that take place on a homeowners property typically fall under the liability coverage included in a standard home insurance policy. In most cases, that applies to someone who falls on a broken step or gets bitten by a dog. Both instances take place on the homeowners property, and in both cases, liability coverage would help pay a homeowners legal expenses and any damages, up to the coverage limits, if a lawsuit is filed.
But what about cyberbullying lawsuits filed against children and their parents? Many defendants, if they are homeowners, are seeking help from their home insurance policies. Are they getting it? In many cases, if the bully is a minor, the answer is yes, at least for now. However, homeowners must check their policies carefully to see whether this protection is in effect for them. Some carriers have strict exclusions to this protection for incidents “expected or intended” by members of an insured household or “arising out of physical or mental abuse.” Others are reducing their exposure by excluding these types of incidents in future coverage declarations.
An additional option for protection is to purchase an umbrella policy – extra liability coverage. Umbrella policies include coverage for libel and slander, even as intentional acts. In some situations, therefore, an umbrella policy could help pay the legal fees for cyberbullying cases. However, the American Association of Insurance Services, an advisory council for the property casualty insurance industry, is now excluding coverage for “electronic aggression” in its model umbrella policies. This exclusion is relatively new and not yet widespread or well known.
In many cases of cyberbullying, prosecution and deliberation can become hazy because of the question of intent. The major question: Can a child have malicious intent? Most criminal courts don’t hold children 7 to 14 years of age responsible for knowing right from wrong in complicated contexts. Can a 13-year-old fully understand the harm he or she commits online? Here’s why it’s important – up to 38% of minors on Facebook are younger than 13, according to a Consumer Reports study.
The legal landscape regarding cyberbullying continues to evolve, and so does the insurance industry’s reponse. All this means is that parents must step up. They must make sure their children are neither victims nor perpetrators of cyberbullying. Failure to do so could result in long-term damage to a child victim and long-term financial trouble if the parents are judged responsible for cyberbullying on their premises.
Katherine Wood writes about home insurance and other topics for the HomeInsurance.com blog, a resource center for insurance consumers and homebuyers across the country.