When 'digital bullying' goes too far

Always-on gadgets give kids unlimited access to parents and friends--and expose them to 'round-the-clock harassment. Image: Stopping text bullies

Two years ago, Ryan routinely spent two to three hours a night instant messaging with classmates. Then he noticed a pattern: "It made me feel terrible."

Kids, the 13-year-old said, spent the better part of their evenings insulting one another online. "They'd start getting really mad at you, and sometimes it wouldn't even make sense," said the Manhattan teenager, who asked that his last name not be used. "It made me really cautious about what people were really saying behind my back. Leaving IM and walking around, I still was thinking about it. It felt really horrible."

Ryan--whose experience disturbed him so much he avoided instant messaging for nearly two years and now uses it only occasionally--is far from alone.

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What's new:
Kids are mocked and threatened routinely via text messaging and IM--the media of choice for bullies in the digital age.

Bottom line:
Children who make themselves accessible to parents and friends via phone, game console or other gadgets also expose themselves to unwanted communication. However, help is available if kids know where to turn, experts say.

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According to a by U.K. children's charity NCH, one in five kids has been bullied via digital phone or computer. Bullying by text message was the most common form of abuse reported, with 14 percent of children interviewed saying they had received upsetting messages on their mobile phones. The interactions run the gamut from disconcerting to downright terrifying.

"You've got 'you're big, you're fat, you smell and nobody likes you' right through to 'we know where you live and we're going to burn down your house and you're going to die,'" said John Carr, head of the children's technology unit for NCH, formerly known as the National Children's Home.

Carr said he's especially concerned about bullying via mobile phone. These days, roughly 55 percent of kids ages 13 to 17 have cell phones, estimates Linda Barrabee, wireless market analyst for The Yankee Group. For many kids, a cell phone is nothing short of an appendage.

"Mobile phones are among a child's most precious possessions," Carr said. "This is their space, something they control. When something goes wrong with the mobile phone, they feel especially vulnerable."

It's a potential flip side of the digital lifestyle: Children who make themselves accessible to parents and friends via phone, game console or other always-on gadgets also open themselves up to unwanted communication. What's more, the time-honored humiliation of being taunted in front of others can now live on in perpetuity on cell phones and Web sites.

"There's no sanctuary anymore," Carr said. "It's more pernicious and more insidious than it was in the olden days."

The NCH survey, titled "Putting U in the Picture (PDF file)," collated responses from 770 youngsters ages 11 to 19. One in 10 said someone had used a camera phone to snap their picture in a way that made them feel uncomfortable, embarrassed or threatened. Of those, 17 percent believed the images had been forwarded to others.

The report cited instances of so-called "happy slapping," an extreme form of techno-bullying where physical assaults are recorded on mobile phones and distributed to Web sites and other phones via video messaging.

Happy slapping has drawn particularly wide attention in Britain, where several high-profile cases have aroused concern among parents, educators and legislators. Over the weekend, British police announced that they had arrested three 14-year-old boys in connection with the alleged rape of an 11-year-old girl whose attack was videotaped and sent to peers at her North London school.

Scarred for life
Earlier this month, another British girl had surgery to remove a pellet from her leg after a young man allegedly shot her with an air rifle while his friend photographed the assault with his mobile phone.

And in May, a Hercules, Calif., high school student was charged with felony assault for allegedly punching a classmate in a school locker room in a videotaped incident that was posted on the Internet. The 17-year-old victim ended up with a crushed jaw and a black eye.

StopTextBully.com But the damage doesn't have to be physical to be profound.

In 2003, the parents of Quebec teenager sued his classmates for digitizing and publishing a private video Raza made of himself practicing "Star Wars" light saber moves. Raza was the target of worldwide ridicule after the video was uploaded to the Net.

Some viewers sympathized with the embarrassed teenager. Web sites dedicated themselves to buying him an iPod (which he received) and to having him appear in the final "Star Wars" film (he didn't). But Ghyslain's parents claim their son was so humiliated, he's undergoing psychiatric treatment and may be scarred for life.

Bullying, said Carr of the NCH, "can turn you into a recluse and sap your self-esteem."

Still, in this age of ubiquitous file sharing, an incident that

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