Hateful text messages, abusive e-mails and cyber-gossip are giving bullies new power over their victims even in the supposed safety of their own homes, U.S. researchers reported on Tuesday.
And most of the victims are themselves new, with two-thirds of children who report such harassment saying they had not been bullied before in other ways.
Schools and parents must work together to find ways to stop such behavior, without robbing children and teens of valuable Internet access, the researchers agreed.
"Internet bullying has emerged as a new and growing form of social cruelty," Kirk Williams and Nancy Guerra of the University of California at Riverside wrote in one of a series of reports published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
The reports, from researchers organized by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, show a 50 percent increase in the number of kids aged 10 to 17 who said they were harassed online from 6 percent in 2000 to 9 percent in 2005.
"Youth harassed online were significantly more likely to also report two or more detentions or suspensions, and skipping school in the previous year," Michele Ybarra and colleagues at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore reported in another study in the journal.
"Especially concerning, youth who reported being targeted by Internet harassment were eight times more likely than all other youth to concurrently report carrying a weapon to school in the past 30 days," added Ybarra's team, who interviewed 1,500 10- to 15-year-olds.
They found that 64 percent of those who reported having been bullied online were not victims of physical or verbal aggression in person. That makes for a whole new population of victims, the researchers agreed. ANONYMOUS ADVANTAGE
An extreme example of the problem occurred in October 2006, when 13-year-old Megan Meier of Dardenne Prairie, Missouri hanged herself after receiving vitriolic Internet messages from someone posing as a teen-age boy. The town passed a measure making online harassment illegal.
"The anonymity provided by new technology limits a victim from responding in a way that may ordinarily stop a peer's aggressive behavior or influence the probability of future acts, which provides an advantage to the perpetrator," the CDC's Corinne David-Ferdon and Marci Feldman Hertz wrote.
"The primary recommendation we have for parents is to talk to their kids," Ferdon said in a telephone interview. "Talk to them about where they go on the Internet, appropriate standards of behavior."
Schools should also become involved and should add cyber-bullying to any policies they may already have on bullying and other forms of aggression, said Hertz.
Hertz and Ferdon said school districts in Florida, South Carolina, Utah and Oregon are creating new policies to deal with cyber-bullying.
Total bans on using the Internet or text-messaging are unlikely to work, she added. "Technology has a lot of benefits for young people," Hertz said. "They can make social connections that they otherwise might not have the opportunity to make."
Patricia Agatston and colleagues at Clemson University in South Carolina interviewed 148 teens in depth and found that teens often did not tell their parents about bullying for fear of losing online privileges.