A Modest Proposal to Curb Bullying

I spent all of last week in Canada, where the suicide of 15 year-old Amanda Todd due to bullying was the cause of a great deal of media hubbub.

Here is the Globe and Mail‘s initial article on the teenager’s suicide (the Globe is Canada’s newspaper of record, and Toronto’s response to the New York Times). In a nutshell, Amanda committed suicide because someone whom she had been corresponding with online and whom she had sent a picture of her breasts to thought it would be funny to harass Amanda by sending that picture to her friends and family.

Before anything, I would just like to say that my heart goes out to Amanda’s loved ones. I don’t have children, but I know firsthand what it’s like to lose someone you love to suicide, and it must be even worse

A Modest Proposal to Curb Bullying

Most discussions of bullying evolve sooner or later into a discussion of what can be done to curb bullying, so the policy options to do so were on my mind most of last week. What follows is my suggestion.

Please bear in mind, however, that I am not a lawyer, and that I have no legal training beyond what I have learned in the context of teaching law and economics. I am posting this to get some sort of discussion going that is neither the touchy-feely not fueled by a thirst for revenge. If you are a lawyer, please comment below on the validity of the approach I suggest.

One of the concepts that always causes a great deal of discussion in my law and economics seminar is the legal doctrine of respondeat superior which, according to Wikipedia:

states that, in many circumstances, an employer is responsible for the actions of employees performed within the course of their employment. This rule is also called the “Master-Servant Rule”, recognized in both common law and civil law jurisdictions.

Here, I am considering bullying between underage minors, so that the bully cannot be treated as an adult in court.

If a child is being bullied by another, could we not invoke the legal doctrine of respondeat superior by making the bully’s parents responsible for the actions of their child?

In other words, it should in principle be possible to redefine the relationship between a bully and his parents as a principal-agent relationship (after all, underage minors are already the responsibility of their parents in so many other spheres of intervention) so as to shift the burden of responsibility on the parents.

This would be similar to how courts often intervene to ensure that externalities are internalized. And though I agree that it might be difficult for parents to perfectly enforce good behavior on the part of their children, they are nevertheless the ones who are in the best position to do so since, in law and economics parlance, they are the least cost avoider.

Again, I don’t have any formal legal training, so I encourage actual lawyers to comment below.

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  1. Janet Hou


    This is an article from the Washington Post, posted on October 17th. The Ad Council is starting a new campaign that focuses on kids being an essential tool to combat bullying. It mentions the role of parents too and how this campaign isn’t a free pass for parents to sit back and say the kids and government are handling this issue. Which is just crazy that parents would think that in the first place but it seems as if parents want the fun part of being a parent and none of the “hard” or unpleasant ones, as in teaching and disciplining. Soapbox rant ended.

  2. Jacob AG

    I’m not a lawyer, sorry, just a reader.

    It’s an interesting idea, but it’s a bit broad. What are we talking about, specifically? In this case for example, what would the state hold parents accountable for exactly: bullying, manslaughter, or something else? (You can see how there’s a huge range of possible punishments…)

  3. christopher

    From my friend Cheryl, a lawyer: “[Cheryl L. Wickham] In a nutshell, I think it’s a dumb idea. First, the concept of making children less responsible for their actions upsets me. If anything, they should be held more accountable. One big issue with bullying is that unless the victim fights back the bully goes unpunished. Adding parent liability won’t really change anything. For another, bullying is complicated, which is why laws don’t really deal well with it. Take for instance the case mentioned, the cause of action here would be the tort of public exposure of private facts – which I might add doesn’t exist in every jurisdiction. Aside from that, there are not many causes of action present. Adding respondent superior adds nothing because you would need to show it was “at the direction” of the parents, which I’m sure is not true. At most you could argue “negligent supervision”. :/ The fact is, it really adds very little. But, I have a counterproposal…how about we give more “teeth” to privacy laws and stalking laws. Then people might think twice about breaking them. Privacy laws and stalking laws are both really weak in the U.S. This would help more, IMHO, and not just for bullying cases.

    Looks like states have already started to do this: http://m.ncsl.org/issues-research/telecom/cyberstalking-and-cyberharassment-laws.aspx

  4. Marc F. Bellemare

    Thanks for your comment and question, Jacob. What I had in mind was that the doctrine of respondeat superior could be brought up in order to hold parents responsible of the relevant tort. In most cases, this would be harrassment (something which goes as far back as Wilkinson v. Downton), but in the Amanda Todd case, I guess it would be aiding and abetting suicide, if not manslaughter.

  5. Marc F. Bellemare

    Thanks, Christopher. This is very helpful. I agree that the law could be amended to allow directly dealing with this. My post was aimed more at what we can do short of amending the law. Please thank Cheryl for her input.