How Mean Can Teens Be?


Everyone knows that adolescence is tough, but with the advance of technology, teenagers today have redefined the social battleground.

No longer restricted to schoolyard confrontations, they can bring home the catfights and conflicts, thanks to the Internet.

Lauren, a teen girl from Florida, says she has only one main friend she trusts. "But there's always that fear, and that doubt, that something can happen and all your secrets are out," she said.

Lauren and other girls quoted in this piece asked that their last names not be used to protect their privacy.

In loosely monitored cyberspace, where images are easily downloaded, privacy and secrets can be hard to maintain.

One girl, Paige, remembered, "In middle school, girls would bring their camera phones into the locker rooms. If they didn't like certain girls, that's the way they would get back at them."

Cell phones, instant messaging and personal Web sites like MySpace and Facebook are now common weapons of "cyberbullying," used to spread gossip, rumors and bequeath public lashings -- leaving teenagers with painful battle scars.

The technology often appeals to the strengths of girls, allowing them to fight with emotionally stinging words instead of physical brawn. Although boys and girls both participate in Internet hazing, experts say that girls are more invested in the potential of cyberbullying.

"Boys are more task-oriented," said Brigham Young University researcher Clyde Robinson, who has conducted studies with Brigham Young's Craig Hart and David Nelson to learn why some girls are mean early in life.

"Give 'em a task, and if they're gonna be mean or attack somebody, they'll get on to that task," Robinson said of boys. "The girls, they're going after the emotional jugular."

Bullying can start early, said Hart.

"Preschoolers can be very adept in being mean to one another in relational aggressive ways," Hart said. "If a child feels fairly insecure, to make themselves feel better about themselves, one way is to put others down."

John Halligan knows all about how socially cruel some kids can be. In middle school, several classmates, including a former friend, Ashley, started teasing Halligan's son, Ryan.

In online conversations, Ashley and other friends led Ryan to believe that she might be interested in him -- but then quickly turned it all around on him.

"When he sort of got interested, we're like, 'Oh, well, we would never go for someone like you. I can't believe you would think that,'" Ashley told "Primetime." "Like really, really cruel stuff that we said."

Like many teens, Ryan didn't share much of his pain. His parents had no idea that Ryan was under attack by kids who called him gay and girls who pretended to like him just so they could turn and call him a loser.

Many parents have a difficult time monitoring the bullying.

"Kids are natives to the Internet, and adults are the immigrants," said Elizabeth Englander of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center. "Adults, being so far behind the eight ball, means we won't be able to educate kids on cyberbullying."

Englander said it creates a "perfect storm" in which kids have a separate, unmonitored universe where they can be naive enough to think there are no consequences.

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