Passport on computer

Cyber Citizenship Part 4: Respect

In There's a Stranger in My House by Dr James Wellborn

As citizens of the cyber community, teenagers have a responsibility to be aware of the different aspects of the cyber world (see previous column).  It is also important for them to know about how to keep themselves safe and secure online (see other previous column).  Finally, teenagers have a responsibility as cyber citizens to respect the laws of the online community.


While the cyber world does not have a bill of constitutionally protected rights such as those enjoyed by citizens of the United States (see the US Constitution), your teenager should still be required to respect certain unalienable rights: life (e.g., right for fair and reasonable treatment online), liberty (e.g., right to basic freedoms) and pursuit of happiness (e.g., right to explore personal interests without undue interference).  These rights provide a framework for your kid on how to treat others in the cyber community.  But, as importantly, they provide a validation for how your kid should expect and require others to treat them online.

Life.  In the cyber world, the right to life is primarily about being treated in a civil and respectful manner.  This means interacting with people in a considerate, tolerant and appropriate way; the way your grandmother would expect you to act (if your grandmother is a polite and well-mannered woman).  This right also includes freedom from threats to life or personhood.

Liberty.  Respect for online freedom should be similar to those enshrined by our constitution, especially the Bill of Rights.  Your kid should respect (and expect) privacy, safety and equal treatment regardless of sex, religion or sexual orientation.  They should also honor other’s property. They should also respect the right for others to express themselves and their opinions.

There are some limitations to these rights that are worth mentioning.  The first being that children (and even adolescents) represent a special category of citizen. There is an expectation minors should be protected from undue influence and developmentally inappropriate material or experiences.  (And who gets to decide this?  You do.)

There are also limitations to the rights citizens have in the form and nature of the freedom of expression.  While the law has an appallingly broad interpretation of what is protected speech and expression, as a parent you have the right and the responsibility to both limit your kid’s exposure to the extremes of speech and its many forms and to limit your own kid’s expressions.

Pursuit of Happiness.  The weird thing about the concept of happiness as it relates to human rights isn’t actually about happiness as we usually think about it.  It isn’t about getting everything you want.  It is about the right to basic opportunities for personal growth and determining what is in your own best self-interest (rather than a government determining these for you).  The cyber world is remarkable for the diverse opportunities for personal growth and to pursue personal interests.  Your kid, as a cybercitizen, is obligated to respect (and expect) others rights to pursue their own personal interests.

The primary reason your kid should have respect for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is due to being a moral, considerate person.  But, beyond that, there are some laws they need to follow.


The most important area of respect your kid should demonstrate as a cyber citizen is for the law.  There are several legal issues related to online activity.  The first is intellectual property rights.  This includes the written word, ideas and products like music.  This area is protected by federal copyrights, patent and trademarks laws.  When your kid copies and pastes passages from the internet and claims they wrote it, it violates the property rights of the writer.  When your kid downloads music without paying for it, they have violated the property rights of the artist.

Another area that has legal protections is cyber harassment and bullying or cyber stalking.   These laws are primarily enacted by state legislatures.   Most states have anti cyber harassment laws (except for Alaska, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, New Jersey and Wyoming).  Fewer states (i.e., 38) have cyber stalking laws.   Threatening, harassing or intimidating someone through electronic means violates that person’s rights to be free from harassment.

Pornography also is regulated by law.  For the most part that means insuring that it is not child pornography.  Most other forms of pornography occupy a grey area that is in part protected as free speech and in part whether it violates community standards of decency.  This pretty much means it is unregulated.  A more recent aspect of pornography is what has been called revenge porn.  For people over 18, a slimy former partner or, as likely, someone who has hacked your kid’s account, may provide nude images to sites that solicit this kind of material.  It can be done without the consent of the person in the images.

Finally, there are laws about identity theft both at the federal and state level.  Making creating a false web sites under another person’s name and otherwise using their personally identifying information is both a federal and state crime.

Cyber Crimes

So, here is a summary of things that are against the law.

Copyright infringement


Downloading songs you didn’t purchase

Profiting from others’ creative efforts or products

Bullying and harassment

Child pornography (including sexting)

Internet stalking

Identity theft

While avoiding prosecution is an important goal for everyone, your kid should be a citizen who bases their behavior on what is right (i.e., morals and ethics) rather than just what is covered under the law.  Morals provide a higher standard of behavior that all of us should use to guide and direct our behavior.  Nevertheless, your kid does need to know about the law.

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