US researchers warn that bullies are taking their hurtful ways from real-world schoolyards to the "cyber" world by targeting teens with nasty e-mail, text messaging, and online chat.
The number of children ages 10 to 17 that say they were abused by "cyber bullies" climbed 50 percent, from six percent in 2000 to nine percent in 2005, according to a new report from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"One thing that stands out is that aggression perpetuated with technology goes far beyond cyber bullying," said Corrine Ferdon, one of the authors of the CDC report on "electronic aggression and youth violence."
"Technology is constantly evolving and if we focus on the Internet we will miss the show."
Instant messaging, including text messages sent to mobile telephones, is the most common way to send taunts, teases, threats, insults or other bullying messages, according to report co-author Marci Hertz.
Unlike in schoolyards where bullies have to face victims, the Internet lets abusers remain anonymous, Hertz said.
The majority of the self-described victims in the study said they didn't know who the "cyber bullies" were, Hertz told AFP.
"In the schoolyard you could defend yourself by speaking back but it is a completely different dynamic online," Hertz said.
"Some kids might be able to shrug it off, turn off the computer and move on. But some kids are more fragile."
A 13-year-old Missouri girl hanged herself with a belt in November after exchanging insults via her profile page at MySpace.com with a person she was tricked into thinking was a 16-year-old boy named "Josh."
The final message sent by Josh, who flirted with the girl for weeks online, was reportedly "The world would be a better place without you."
It turned out Josh was an online persona created by the mother of a former friend of the girl. The woman told investigators she played the charade to find out what the girl really thought of her daughter, who was the jilted friend.
After finding out the mother's behavior didn't break the law, local politicians made it illegal to harass people on the Internet.
Police in Tennessee say that one teenage girl stabbed another over a comment posted at the Facebook social networking website.
School officials in some US cities restrict access to the Internet or mobile telephones on campuses.
"Some of this hysteria about bullying is just a way to try to regulate and surveil kids," said Nan Stein, a scientist at the Wellesley College's center for women, where she directs research on sexual harassment.
"We need to encourage kids to be citizens of the world. Being nice helps too, but we shouldn't be regulating."
The CDC performed its study of electronic aggression because it receives calls from "a lot of US schools" asking for advice regarding how to handle cyber bullying, Hertz said.
The report found that 64 percent of youths that said they were bullied on line contended they were not bullied at school. A separate US study concludes children bullied online are more likely to take guns to school.
It is vital for parents to be aware of their children's online experiences because electronic bullying is most likely to take place at homes or other places where teachers can't be alerted, researchers said.
As youth lifestyles increasingly involve the Internet and new ways to communicate it is understandable that bullying migrates from the real-world to the cyber arena, said University of California, Berkeley, researcher and sociologist C.J. Pascoe.
"It is the online manifestation of what they are doing in the schoolyard," said Pascoe, the author of a book on bullying titled "Dude, You're a Fag."
"The issue is being overblown. We should be concerned with bullying and harassment in general, no matter where it takes place."
The popularity of social networking websites where people post profile pages packed with personal information and rosters of friends provide rich fodder for bullies, says Pascoe.
In contrast, online messaging and social networking can also be safe havens for shy children that have trouble making friends in the real world or get bullied in real life situations, according to Pascoe.
"We highlight in our article the benefit of technology," Hertz said of the published report.
"Kids are better able to make friends, maintain social connections and get accurate information. We really encourage more talking rather than blocking or prohibiting access to technology."