For one middle-school girl it was a rumor, circulated via text
messaging, that she had contracted SARS while on a trip to Toronto.
She returned to school and found nobody would come near her.
For an overweight boy in Japan, it was cellphone pictures, taken
of him on the sly while he was changing in the locker room and then
sent to many of his peers.
And for Calabasas High School in California, it was a website -
schoolscandals.com - on which vicious gossip and racist and
threatening remarks grew so rampant that most of the school was
The actions themselves - rumors, threats, gossip, humiliation -
are nothing new. But among today's adolescents - a generation of
instant messengers, always connected, always wired - bullies are
starting to move beyond slam books and whisper campaigns to e-mail,
websites, chat rooms, and text messaging.
While in some ways it's no worse than old-fashioned bullying,
cyberbullying has a few idiosyncrasies. Websites and screen names
give bullies a mask of anonymity if they wish it, making them
difficult to trace.
The pressure for kids to be always online means bullies can
extend their harassment into their victims' homes.
And the miracle of the Web means that sharing an embarrassing
photo or private note - with thousands of people - requires little
more than the click of a key.
"It used to be if something happened at school, someone made a
joke about you, or said something in front of you, that was horrible
enough," says Glenn Stutzky, instructor in Michigan State
University's School of Social Work
"But at least a relatively small group of people is there and
aware of it. With wireless technology, that stuff is much more
quickly spread, not only around school but it has the potential of
being put up and shared around the world."
No one knows that better than Ghyslain, the Canadian teenager who
gained notoriety this year as "the Star Wars kid." Fooling around
alone with a video camera one day, the somewhat awkward adolescent
filmed himself acting out a scene from "Star Wars": He twirled and
flung himself about the room, swinging a golf-ball retriever as his
It was the sort of private geeky moment many kids have, but in
Ghyslain's case, it went further.
Some peers got hold of the video, uploaded it to the Internet,
and started passing it around. Doctored videos, splicing him into
"The Matrix," "The Terminator," or the musical "Chicago," with added
special effects and sounds, soon followed. He's now the most
downloaded male of the year. According to news reports, he was
forced to drop out of school and seek psychiatric help.
"It's one of the saddest examples," says Mr. Stutzky. "He did one
goofy little thing, and now it will always be a part of that young
Cruel messages - in an instant
Most cyberbullying doesn't reach such extremes, but it's still
damaging. One in 17 kids ages 10 to 17 had been threatened or
harassed online, and about one-third of those found the incidents
extremely distressing, according to a 2000 study by the University
of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center. A study
in Britain last year by NCH, a British children's charity, found
that 1 in 4 students had been bullied online.
The most common instances often involve instant messaging, or IM -
the instantaneous chats that have spawned a lingo of their own and
are a constant presence on most kids' computers. Bullies can send a
mean or threatening IM with no identification beyond a selected
screen-name. If that name gets blocked, they choose another.
More recently, it's cellphones. For several years now, bullying
via text messaging and cellphone photos has been a concern in
countries such as Britain and Japan, where such technologies are
common. Stutzky says he's just beginning to see it in the US. He
heard from a high-school boy who got text messages questioning his
sexual orientation, and from a middle-school girl who got messages
like: "Where did your mom get you those shoes? …