HACKENSACK, N.J. -- It used to be that a teenager who was pushed into a locker or taunted for somehow being different could escape to the haven of home after school.
Not any longer.
Bullying has expanded beyond the playground and into the personal space of students. Even in their bedrooms, kids often can't escape the threats of bullies, thanks to cruel texts, phony Facebook profiles, even online gaming.
"Cyberbullying" has become the latest and most pervasive method of meanness in the already tough world of teens. Cellphones, computers, social networking sites -- all can be used to great effectiveness by those intent on harassing, threatening or humiliating their peers.
Adding to the misery for victims is the fact that, in cyberspace, bullies can hide behind anonymity and don't have to face their prey. Yet the impact can be devastating because the messages on social-networking sites spread as far and wide as the Internet itself.
"What makes cyberbullying such a deep concern is it takes bullying to a whole new, tragic level," said Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality, the New Jersey gay rights organization that's been out front in the battle against bullying. "Cyberbullying doesn't give students an opportunity to heal and move on because there is always the threat that the harassing email can be forwarded to thousands of additional people at the touch of a keyboard. How horrifying is that?"
Teenagers today spend much of their lives interacting electronically, whether for schoolwork, to keep in touch with friends, to play games or to share photographs or other digital files. And according to the U.S. Department of Education, more than 900,000 secondary students reported being cyberbullied in 2007.
Cyberbullying appears in various forms, but the most common tend to be hurtful cellphone text messages and vicious rumors posted on social-networking websites like Facebook. It can extend to more elaborate examples such as orchestrating a blitz of text messages to inflate a victim's cellphone bill or taking the already rough-and-tumble world of interactive gaming into the realm of threats and hate speech.
Just as with traditional bullying, teens are targeted online for many reasons: sexual orientation, weight, attractiveness, intelligence, even hobbies.
Experts say cyberbullies are able to keep at a distance from their victims and that can embolden a bully who otherwise might have thought twice.
"When I was bullied as a kid, my bullies would have to look at me in person and see the tears in my eyes, which is not an easy thing to do," Goldstein said. "It's easy emotionally (now) because you don't have to deal with the emotions of a person being bullied face to face."
In fact, cyberbullying can begin unintentionally. Because text messages or emails don't account for facial gestures or body language that convey a person's tone, they can easily be misinterpreted, experts say.
"You may feel more inclined to say things you might not say in person and you might not realize it's something that you have said that may upset someone," said Nancy Willard, director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use in Eugene, Ore.
When misused, social networking sites can be especially damaging.
Facebook is designed as a place where real people share information about themselves with designated "friends" -- including biographical profiles, photos and "status updates." It's easily the most popular social media site and is used as a critical communication tool by many youngsters as well as their parents.
Problems can occur, though, when someone creates a fake account and uses that identity to impersonate a victim or posts hateful, harassing messages or photos on the site.
Unlike Facebook, another site popular with teens, Formspring, allows for anonymous comments.
Both sites make members agree to "terms of service" that prohibit bullying or harassment.
Facebook has said it considers the safety of its members of the utmost importance. To that end, it offers links on pages across the site to report abuse, uses a trained team of reviewers who respond to those reports and alerts law enforcement when warranted. It also participates in educational campaigns about bullying.
At a White House conference on bullying prevention in March, Facebook announced a "social reporting" feature that allows users to report bullying not just to Facebook, but also to a trusted adult through a series of prompts, according to Nicky Jackson Colaco, a Facebook spokeswoman.
"We're concerned about any abusive behavior and have made these efforts to promote an environment where everyone on Facebook can connect and share comfortably," she said.
Formspring also unveiled at the White House summit a partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to develop tools to detect cyberbullying.
Still, some critics say social networking sites need to do more.
Stuart Green, founder of the New Jersey Coalition for Bullying Awareness and Prevention, said the sites need to take more responsibility by enforcing policies such as age restrictions to create pages and identifying postings that are hurtful to children and screening or removing them.
The extensive reach of the Internet is what makes cyberbullying so pernicious.
"The difference is not what they're doing, but the fact that the Internet makes it more damaging," said Paula Rodriguez Rust, a Middlesex County-based bullying prevention expert and sociologist. "Now it's not just five kids in English who heard the rumor, it's everyone in the school who found out. It spreads so quickly and to so many people that it makes the consequences greater."
Victims experience additional stress because they can't escape the taunts and teasing. It's there every time they sign on to Facebook or check their emails or text messages. And at times, parents are in the dark because they have trouble keeping up with what their children are doing online.
A 14-year-old eighth-grader from Bergen County said she became depressed when three former friends, who were angry with her over a boy, cyberbullied her for a month. The boy liked her, but one of the friends was also interested in him.
They sent her private messages on her Facebook page calling her a "backstabber" and "slut." On her cellphone she received text messages calling her "fat" and "ugly," as well as threats of violence.
"It was hard to deal with because I would be on the computer trying to do homework and I would get all of these messages and it would distract me," said the teen, whose name is being withheld.
The teen removed the girls as Facebook friends, and the girls were told not to have any contact with her. She made new friends.
"Ignore it and find people to talk to because it's not worth trying to fix things with those friends," she said. "If they're going to put in the time and effort to hurt you, then they don't deserve to be your friend."
Yet teens who engage in such attacks often don't comprehend the effects cyberbullying can have on targets -- shattered self-esteem, depression, skipping school and in extreme cases, suicide.
"People think that direct bullying is worse than indirect," Rust said. "The indirect can be so much more damaging."
Bullying and harassment in the schools gained renewed and intense attention after the suicide of Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi, a Ridgewood, N.J., resident who jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge after his college roommate allegedly streamed an intimate gay encounter to Internet viewers via a Web camera.
His death prompted the passage of a state law that requires school districts to establish anti-bullying programs and train staff in suicide prevention and dealing with bullying incidents. The existing anti-bullying law, first enacted in 2002, was amended in 2007 to explicitly include cyberbullying.
"Most advocates and observers of the field felt it was the fastest-growing form of bullying," Green said.
New Jersey's new law, considered one of the toughest in the nation, also extended schools' responsibility to taking action in cases where bullying occurs off school grounds and infringes on a student's rights, creates a hostile environment at school for a student or disrupts a school's operation, according to Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Englewood, a primary sponsor of the law.
Even before the new law, schools faced uncertainty about their responsibilities for cyberbullying.
The state Division on Civil Rights has found there was probable cause to pursue a complaint that the Emerson Board of Education violated the state's anti-discrimination law for not dealing with a case of a student's harassment that included cyberbullying. The case is pending and the district recently filed a motion for reconsideration with the division, said Joanne Butler, Emerson's school board attorney.
The harassment, which was said to have gone on for six years, extended to the Internet with the creation of a fake MySpace page that depicted the male victim as a female, stated his gender as "unknown" and listed just two friends, according to the complaint.
Cyberbullying warning signs
Children may be victims if they:
--Unexpectedly stop using the computer.
--Appear nervous or jumpy when an instant message, text message or e-mail appears.
--Appear to be angry, depressed or frustrated after using the computer.
--Avoid discussions about what they're doing on the computer.
--Become abnormally withdrawn from usual friends and family members.
Children may be cyberbullies if they:
--Quickly switch screens or close programs when parents walk by.
--Use the computer all hours of the night.
--Get unusually upset if computer or phone privileges are restricted.
--Avoid discussions about what they're doing on the computer.
--Use multiple online accounts or use an account that is not their own.
What you can do if your child is being cyberbullied:
--Determine if child is at risk of being physically harmed and try to assess their emotional response to harassment.
--If any personal contact information about child has been posted online or if a threat was made, immediately report to local law enforcement.
--Make a printout of instances of cyberbullying to show authorities, but be aware that electronic evidence is also needed.
--Do not delete messages or data.
--Reach out to Internet provider for assistance in preserving electronic evidence.
Sources: Cyberbullying Research Center and CarePlus NJ
(c) 2011, North Jersey Media Group Inc.
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