School Bullies Take Teasing Online

The problem began when Alyssa was in sixth grade. She used an instant messaging program to talk online with all of her friends. But then one day, the messages she received were most unwelcome.

"There's a boy at school, a classic bully. He treats everybody badly," she said. "One day he came online -- somehow he got my screen name -- and started bullying me online, calling me names, telling me I'm stupid and I'm a loser and nobody likes me."

She quickly clicked out of the program, but the next day -- and for the next two weeks -- the harassment continued, even though she'd tell him to "shut up and go away."

"It really got to me," Alyssa said. "He just kept saying such hurtful things. And when you're reading them on the screen, it's so much more impactful than someone saying it. The words sink in."

In cyberspace, kids can use more than instant messaging to torment each other or post personal information. Nasty e-mails, Web sites, cell phone text messages and photos all can be vehicles for everything from mild teasing to serious harassment.

It can "range from somebody calling somebody else names to death threats," said Parry Aftab, executive director of Internet safety group, which reports and helps protect people from online dangers.

Such "cyberbullying," Aftab said, is "cyber-harassment when you've got a kid on both sides."

While there aren't hard figures to define the scope of the problem, those who work with adolescents can attest to its pervasiveness anecdotally.

"It's a very serious problem at every school," said Lawrence Shapiro, a child psychologist who has created a board game about bullying called "Don't Pick on Me."

While Alyssa knew who was behind the nasty messages she received, other bullies can make up screen names to hide their identities.

"I think it's just so easy," Shapiro said. "Kids who may never bully in real life, because it's anonymous, they find it much easier."

Old Problem, New Outlets

Kids picking on other kids is hardly anything new. But technology allows it to invade private time and comfortable places.

"The boundaries used to be clear between home and school," Shapiro said. "Home used to be a safe place. Kids could often feel very good about themselves within the family even if they didn't at school."

Aftab said there are four main categories of cyberbullies, each with a different motivation. They include:

The Vengeful Angel: This is a cyberbully who thinks he is righting a wrong or trying to take justice into his own hands. These people think someone's been hurt or abused and they come in and settle things. "They don't realize they are also a cyberbully," Aftab said.

This type of bully is motivated by vengeance. "The easiest way to stop is to look at the situation they're trying to fix and give them other avenues for justice," she said.

The Power Hungry: "They do it to intimidate, they do it for attention, they do it for control," Aftab said. "They do it to show everybody how big and tough they are and they can push others around."

A subset of this group is the offline victim of a schoolyard bully who "may not be strong enough to fight back physically, but they have enough tech skills and the technology to fight back online," Aftab said.

Often they are girls or kids with computer skills. Because they are motivated by ego, Aftab said, the best thing to do is ignore them, but search online to make sure they haven't put false information out on the Web.

The Mean Girls: Generally, girls participate in groups, though some tend to do it alone. Cyberbullying happens at slumber parties, after school, during breaks in school, on cell phones over lunch, at the mall.

"They do it for the entertainment value," Aftab said. "They're bored. They have too much time on their hands."

The best thing to do, she said, is to ignore them or report them, but take away their fun. "Be boring so that they'll either go to somebody else or stop."

The Inadvertent Cyberbullies: They may not realize they said something hurtful or that they sent an e-mail to the wrong person by mistake. Sometimes while instant messaging, they omit an important word like "not" or forget to add "JK" (just kidding) after a comment.

"They have no intentions of being a cyberbully," Aftab said. "They just weren't careful."

There also is something she calls "cyberbullying by proxy," when bullies seek the help of others by such things as posting something about a black student in a white supremacist chat room or a Jewish student on a Nazi site.

"Most of the time they have no idea how serious this kind of cyberbullying by proxy can be," Aftab said, adding that with kids, while it can be "nasty and horrible," there's generally no danger, but adults can behave differently.

Fixing the Problem

To help combat the problem in its schools, Westchester County, N.Y., will host a summit on cyberbullying today in conjunction with and Marvel Comics' Spider-man. The session will bring together 450 people, including kids from about 30 middle and high schools, parents, law-enforcement officials and teachers to discuss ways to prevent cyberbullying.

Donna Greene, spokeswoman for county executive Andrew Spano, who proposed the summit, said the idea is to teach each group its role in recognizing when incidents can be ignored and when they are more serious.

"It can just be the degree of annoying," Greene said. "In other times, it can be a very, very serious matter."

"The bullies need to know that we are watching and trying to stop this action," she said. "The kids need to know how to deal with it and how to avoid becoming a cyberbully themselves."

In Alyssa's case, she initially handled things poorly. She did not use the software's blocked message function, but told her mom what the boy was doing, and her mother suggested Alyssa stick up for herself. But that turned out to be a bad move. "On my part, that was the wrong thing to do because that just made it worse," Alyssa said.

The harassment ended after Alyssa's father logged on and threatened to alert the police. "Finally, the boy backed off," she said. "I got over it. What I learned from that is you can never let it get to you so that you react to it because that's all that they want."

Not only did she learn that, but Alyssa, now 14 and a high school freshman in New Jersey, helps kids who find themselves in similar situations. Her last name has been withheld to protect her anonymity as she counsels kids online through the Teenangels program run by WiredSafety, with training provided by the FBI.

"What we do is go to other schools and as Teenangels we can talk to kids in schools about online safety," she said. "We tell them tips, practice situations."

Shapiro said change must start with kids themselves. "There always has been bullying. There always will be bullying," he said. "Right now we're looking at not just treating the victim and the bully but looking at the bystander as well and what they should be doing about it. Most kids fall into that category. What schools are doing is asking everybody to be responsible.

"Most psychologists believe if you're ever going to diminish the problem, you have to put the peer pressure that bullying of any sort is against the peer value," he said, adding, "Make it a terrible thing, like coming to school naked."

For those who find themselves being bullied online, Alyssa said, they should "definitely not let it get to you and not let it affect you because all that these cyberbullies want is to get a reaction out of you … they get satisfaction out of that."