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Experts say busting parents won't stop cyberbullies

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POLK COUNTY, FL (WFLA) -

Calls to prosecute the parents of cyberbullies have been gaining urgency since the felony-stalking arrests Monday of two central Florida girls, ages 12 and 14, who allegedly harassed a classmate, Rebecca Sedwick, 12, until she jumped to her death at an industrial site in Polk County, Fla., on Sept. 10. 

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd — a longtime crusader against cyberbullying — has been pushing to charge the parents of the 14-year-old girl with failing to monitor her online activity before she was arrested in Sedwick's suicide. But no states have passed a law holding parents criminally liable for cyberbullying waged by their children.

In fact, a jury of experts already offers a clear verdict on that notion: It won’t stop online taunting.

Such statutes might even drive online harassment deeper into the Internet underground, further from the reach of schools and parents, making the abuse and the abusers harder to find and exacerbating the trauma to young victims, assert several anti-cyberbullying advocates.

Judd told TODAY on Thursday that he aims “to make sure that we do everything we can to send a loud message so parents have to pay attention. At this point in the investigation, we don't have a criminal case against any parents. We wish we did.” On Thursday, Florida lawyer Mark O'Mara, defense attorney for George Zimmerman, announced he was drafting a proposed law to hold parents accountable in some cyberbullying cases. 

In an unrelated development Friday afternoon, the mother of the 14-year-old girl charged in connection with the online taunting of Sedwick was herself arrested by the Polk County Sheriff's Office. Vivian Vosburg, 30, was booked into the county jail on two counts of felony child abuse and four counts of child neglect. That arrest was prompted by a one-minute Facebook video obtained this week by the Polk County Sheriff's Office -- and played for media members Friday -- in which Vosburg is shown, in the sheriff's words, entering a bedroom in which two boys were fighting. "Vivian rushed in and immediately started beating one of them with her fist," Judd said. "One of the boys rolled onto the floor and appeared to be unconscious, or at least not doing a lot moving, and she continued to hit the other one."

While Friday's arrest was not directly linked to the cyber-stalking charge against Vosburg's daughter, Judd did say: "What I suggest to you is the bullying that we saw (allegedly carried out by Vosburg's daughter) certainly could have been a byproduct of what I saw that occurs, apparently, as a routine in the home." 

Thirty-four states have enacted laws banning cyberbullying since the 2006 suicide of Megan Meier, a 13-year-old girl with depression who committed suicide after being taunted on MySpace by the mother of a former friend, but there are no state statutes that open the path to prosecute the parents of cyberbullies. 

"To my knowledge in the United States, no one has yet brought an action against parents in connection with kids cyberbullying," said Parry Aftab, a security, privacy and cyberspace lawyer, adding that a federal law does make it a felony to harass someone directly via digital technology. "But at some point, parents have to step up and be parents," said Aftab. "They’ve got to keep other kids safe from their kids' acting out."

"You should die," and "Why don't you go kill yourself," were among the hate-filled messages investigators found directed at Sedwick on social media. The problems between Sedwick and the other girls arose in 2012 over a "boyfriend issue," Judd said earlier. 

Tragedies like Sedwick's suicide can spark the hunt for a scapegoat, but prosecuting parents isn't the solution, says Sameer Hinduja, a criminal justice professor at Florida Atlantic University and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center. "Legislators and politicians jump in and say we've got to pass laws, have stronger sanctions. But when you think it through and ask what's going to deter someone from messing up the same way again, (prosecuting the parents) is not the best way to respond. "

Legal sanctions imposed on parents could pit the child against the parents, Hinduja added. "The child will be in trouble even further, perhaps for getting the parent into trouble," he said.

Even the most well-intentioned parents cannot police their kids' social-networking habits around the clock, said Tina Meier, whose 13-year-old daughter Megan committed suicide in 2006 after allegedly being hoaxed and bullied on the social network MySpace by Lori Drew, the mother of one of Megan's former friends. Drew was found guilty by a federal jury of three computer-crime misdemeanors. In 2009, a federal judge vacated the conviction.  

"Is it important for us to hold parents accountable for their children’s actions?" Meier asked. "Yes. But it's impossible for parents to be there 24 hours a day."

There are many parents "who truly simply don’t know about it, or who are really trying (to monitor their children's computer use)," Meier told NBC News. 

Casey M., a 17-year-old Internet safety advocate from New Rochelle, N.Y., feels indicting parents for their kids' online bullying acts will have "an inverse effect" and increase online tormenting. Casey M. is part of the national Teen Angels campaign, which speaks to parents and teenagers about Internet safety and cyberbullying. Group members don't use their last names when speaking with the media.

"The more that parents try to control what their kids are doing online, the more sneaky kids get, and the less parents know what their kids are doing online," Casey M. said, adding that she's never faced serious cyberbullying. "The kids would try to hide things a little more."

Long before the suicide of Rebecca Sedwick, Sheriff Judd had emerged as a passionate leader in the national effort to curb cyberbullying. In 2007, Judd became coordinator of the Central Florida Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. He also is a top digital forensic specialist. Under his watch, Internet-crime prosecutions increased by 37 percent in that region. Judd did not respond to an interview request Friday by NBC News. 

On Thursday, the parents of one of the two girls charged in connection with Sedwick's suicide said through their attorney that they frequently tracked their daughter's cellphone and Facebook accounts and never saw a problem to confront and, further, that their daughter "is a loving, caring, and supportive young girl with many friends." 

While no parents have been charged for their child's cyberbullying, in sporadic cases, police and prosecutors have charged and convicted American parents for negligence after their children killed other kids with loaded guns left lying around the house or by crashing cars into other people when driving drunk, Aftab said. 

"Charges are only brought (in those situations) when you see you’re not going to be able to stop the kids from doing this again because their parents either don't care or aren’t willing to step in and do something effective," said Aftab, who founded Teen Angels and runs WiredSafety.org

An estimated 15 percent of U.S. adolescents report being bullied on the Internet during a given year, according to a survey conducted in 2012

But Casey M. believes the victimization rate is far higher. 

"It's really such a widespread problem," she said. "I've found that you can pretty much talk to anyone and they'll know of someone directly involved in a more serious cyber-harassment situation."

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