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MADI W. KNOWS WHAT IT'S LIKE TO BE HOUNDED BY DEATH THREATS, nasty phone calls, and racist jibes. Four years ago, kids from her middle school in suburban Maryland started attacking her by cellphone, text messages, and on social media sites.
Then last fall, the assaults followed her to high school. Someone sent a text calling her the N-word and attached an image of a stick figure getting whipped. Over Thanksgiving break, a bunch of girls left a string of cruel phone messages and texts, calling her a "half-rican" and a "whore" and telling her to kill herself. In January, a former friend accused her of spreading rumors--and vowed all over her Facebook wall that she'd beat up Madi.
"Kids have always been jerks to each other since the beginning of time, and technology does embolden them," says Sameer Hinduja, an assistant professor at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) who helps run the Cyberbullying Research Center (www.cyberbullying.us).
Whether it's through instant messaging, gaming devices, virtual worlds, chat rooms, or blogs, between 25 and 85 percent of today's kids say they've been harassed online by their peers. Their tormentors' top three methods of choice? Social networking sites, emails, and texts.
It's not surprising, considering that kids' use of technology amounts to a full-time job. Teens spend on average more than 53 hours a week--or seven hours and 38 minutes a day-on their computers, cellphones, iPods, and video games, says a recent Kaiser Family Foundation study of 8- to 18-year-olds. When it comes to social networking, a whopping 73 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds use Facebook and Myspace, says another study by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project.
Meanwhile, a 2010 Nielsen report finds that teens on average swap 3,339 texts a month. That's more than six messages per waking hour. Combine these stats with the ease with which kids can hide behind a computer screen and hurl insults and you have the ideal breeding ground for some serious digital damage.
"We're seeing it younger and younger, and we're also seeing it older and older," says WiredSafety.org founder and cybercrime expert Parry Aftab about the widespread digital abuse being committed by young people. "Without question, it has reached epidemic proportions, and it's growing fast."
While no one can deny the emotional and physical scars schoolyard bullies leave behind, many agree the constant pounding that takes place in cyberspace can be even more damaging to children, especially the collective bullying experience that digital mobs often create on social networking sites. "Technology makes it a lot easier to isolate an individual very quickly and to have them experience a kind of pile-on effect that can go vastly beyond the actual confines of their community," says Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), an organization that seeks to end discrimination and bullying in schools.
In fact, a study by the National Institutes of Health says that compared to traditional bullying victims, students targeted by cyberbullies (who may not identify themselves) feel more hopeless and depressed, as well as isolated, dehumanized, and helpless at the time of an attack. "It's like you're drowning," says Debbie Johnston, whose 15-year-old son, Jeffrey, hanged himself in 2005, after being taunted for two years by a serial bully. "And you're doing everything you can just to breathe and save yourself."
Shielded by avatars, alter egos, and various other online identities, cyberspace lets teens be whomever and whatever they want to be. And without face-to-face contact to temper things, there's no limit to the cruelty and aggression an online bully can let loose. "The target can't go home to his or her safe place because the cyber situation follows you in your pocket, backpack, or laptop," explains Seattle-based online safety expert Mike Donlin, who works with the Washington State School Safety Center (www.kl2.wa.us/SafetyCenter/default.aspx).
To make matters worse, the incidents can go viral with incredible speed, magnifying the pain and vicious insults for the entire world to see. And since the Internet keeps a permanent record of everything, the temptation to revisit the scene of the crime can be hard to resist. The vicious posts that contributed to Jeffrey Johnston's death are still up six years later, serving as a constant reminder to his family of the torment he endured-and the fact that his persecutor continues to go unpunished. "I know I could have just not looked at them, but you can't," says his mother, Debbie, of the messages. "It's like rubbing a sore place or picking at a scab. It hurts, but it's just irresistible."
Cyberbullying is a fluid term that describes the willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cellphones, and other electronic devices. And since some experts include all forms of aggression--like insults, minor fights, and the backlash from breakups--in their definitions, there's no real consensus on how widespread the phenomenon is. Based on a review of 30 different studies …