Ricky Alatorre doesn't know which classmate surreptitiously hoisted a cellphone camera and snapped his picture or exactly when it happened.
All Ricky, 16, knows is the fuzzy yet distinguishable portrait of him in English class showed up on MySpace, on a page that claimed to be his. And the fake profile, titled "The Rictionary," not only identified his school but also said Ricky loved dictionaries — a swipe at his school smarts — and was gay (he's not), one of the most common schoolyard taunts.
Tall, big and bookish, Ricky, who lives on a farm in Lake County, Ind., had been picked on since he was in kindergarten.
Insults flung in the heat of anger always inflict some pain. But words — and pictures — posted on the Internet, where they can be seen by anyone, have taken bullying to a whole new level.
"I was completely devastated," Ricky says.
As younger and more kids get their hands on cellphone and digital cameras and nearly ubiquitous high-speed Internet connections, cyberbullying is ramping up and taking new forms.
No longer are threats, taunts and insults relegated to the written word in chat rooms and instant messages. Now teens, children and sometimes adults are adding pictures and videos to their bullying arsenal and posting them on sites such as MySpace, Facebook and YouTube, where anyone can see them.
And bullying has led to real consequences — from fights to teen suicides, or what some label "bullycides." States are beginning to take action with tough new laws targeting those who use electronic means to bully.
Kids don't always report it
Online harassment of American young people ages 10 to 17 increased 50% (from 6% to 9%) from 2000 to 2005, according to the latest research available, a watershed report by the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center. And the number of young people who said they had "made rude or nasty comments to someone on the Internet" increased from 14% to 28% in the same period.
But there hasn't been nearly enough research on the subject, says Corinne David-Ferdon, a health scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Compounding the frustration is that children often fail to report bullying. They fear that tormentors will become angrier and bully them more or worry that if they report being bullied over the Internet or on a cellphone, their phone and Internet privileges will be revoked.
"This is an emerging public-health problem" that needs attention, David-Ferdon says. The problem gained visibility with news about high school girls getting in trouble after posting school fights on YouTube.
Five girls from Lakeland, Fla., face charges over an incident March 30 in which they are accused of participating in the beating of a 16-year-old acquaintance in retaliation for her saying nasty things about them on MySpace. They videotaped the beating and planned to post it on MySpace and YouTube, says Chip Thullbery, state attorney spokesman in Polk County.
The sheriff decided to release it to deal with news media interest, the Associated Press reported.
"Girlfight" videos have become so ubiquitous that the search term "girlfight" brings up thousands of videos on YouTube.
"You're bullied twice," says Nancy Willard, author of Cyber-Safe Kids, Cyber-Savvy Teens and Cyberbullying and Cyberthreats. "You're bullied in the real world with a physical attack, and then you're bullied online with humiliation. It's very hurtful. Very, very hurtful."